WASHINGTON (AP) _ As a little girl, Jihan Sadat watched a favorite aunt shunned because she was a divorcee. Those memories stuck with the former Egyptian first lady, contributing to her commitment to women's rights.

The other day, for instance, Mrs. Sadat said she was watching a TV program about a man who underwent a sex change operation, a detail that didn't particularly interest her.

What caught her attention was the fact that as a woman the character went back to work at her old job - at $2,000 less a year.

''I was shocked,'' said the widow of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who was slain by Moslem fundamentalists in Cairo on Oct. 6, 1981.

Women's rights, Third World problems, population control, Arabic literature, and, of course, her late husband are the things that occupy Mrs. Sadat's thoughts.

''He was very courageous, and I don't think many have his vision ... guts,'' Mrs. Sadat, 51, said of her husband in an interview Wednesday at American University, where she has lectured for the last four months.

Criticism of Sadat is ''hurtful for me,'' she said, even though she thinks it understandable because of the actions he took to encourage democracy in Egypt.

''He did not think of his life, of his position or anything except peace,'' she said. Sadat is best known for his participation in the Camp David accords in which Egypt and Israel agreed to end a years-long state of war and institute diplomatic relations.

Besides speaking, Mrs. Sadat has arranged a regular symposium featuring such well-known women as former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, TV personality Barbara Walters and Barbara Bush, wife of Vice President George Bush.

Mrs. Sadat said she will return to American next semester and also pursue her doctorate at the University of South Carolina, where she also has been lecturing. Her research will involve the relationship between British and Arabic literary criticism.

Although she'd never live in the United States permanently, Mrs. Sadat said she likes being here. ''I feel ... much for relieved and much more relaxed...,'' she said. ''I am happy here and I feel they appreciate what my husband has done very much.''

Mrs. Sadat wears her short hair swept off her face and lines her big brown eyes with kohl. She talks softly about her views and hopes history remembers her for her involvement in the women's movement.

Women ''have problems everywhere,'' Mrs. Sadat said, particularly in the pay area.

As for American women, ''You are lucky,'' she said. ''Your men also are helping in a way and they are broad-minded, but you have to fight also.''

Mrs. Sadat said she may attend the United Nations conference on women in Nairobi in July, but she has not been asked to head the delegation from Egypt.

''I believe the next 10 years will help women,'' she said.

Her own hope, she said, is that one day there will be an international networks tying together women from countries around the world.

''There must be a link between women all over the world,'' she said. ''Our efforts are scattered.''