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Single mother dressed as a man for 43 years to support her daughter

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An Egyptian woman who disguised herself as a man for 43 years in order to work and provide for her daughter was awarded "best mum" by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, on Sunday.

Sisa Abu Daooh from Luxor in South East Egypt was only six-months pregnant when her husband died in the 1970s, leaving her penniless. At the time, restrictions on women's employment in Egypt's patriarchal society meant she was unable to get a job. While office work was offered to some women, her lack of education meant she had to find an alternative solution that would allow her to make a living and take care of her daughter - to dress up as a man.

Her conservative family told her it was inappropriate for her to work and her brothers tried to get her to marry again. “All the time they kept bringing new grooms to me,” she said. But she had found a way to make it on her own. She shaved her head and wore loose fitting clothes which allowed her to make bricks, harvest wheat and sell them. 

“When a woman lets go of her femininity, it’s hard,” she told The Guardian. “But I would do anything for my daughter. It was the only way to make money. What else could I do? I can’t read or write, my family didn’t send me to school, so this was the only way.”

Sisa Abu Daooh on a talk show on CBC Egypt

Sisa Abu Daooh on a talk show on CBC Egypt

While most of the men she worked with had no idea or were not bothered that she was a woman, she did face verbal and physical abuse from time to time by those angered by her secret.

“I used to carry a wooden club with me,” she said in an interview last week. “If I hadn’t, no one would have let me work.” 

Daooh, now 63, has worn a male guise for decades. She publicly announced she was a woman a few years ago when the state was clamping down on unconventional expressions of gender and sexuality. 

“I never hid it. I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret,” she said. She added: “the whole city of Luxor knows I’m a woman, from the smallest kid to the biggest man”.

Equality for women is a considerable problem in Egypt, with only 26% of women contributing to the labour force, compared with 76% of men, according to a study by the World Economic Forum.

But news of Daooh's story and her honorary award from the President for being an extraordinary mother has been celebrated by Egyptians this week.

Daooh's daughter Houda

Daooh's daughter Houda

Having already broken the barrier, Daooh says she has no intention of changing back into women's dress. She says dressing as a man allowed her to live a life free from sexual harassment, where she was considered an equal to her male peers. She recalled moments when she was able to sit in coffee shops and smoke with men without being questioned.

Daooh still wakes up at 6am every morning to go to work, which now mostly consists of polishing shoes. Since her daughter Houda's husband is unwell and unable to work himself, she considers it her duty to provide for her family.

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