Tale of bravery: sacrificing femininity

Egypt – Bravery, fearlessness, heroism…the media frenzy could not define Sisa Abu Daooh’s courage. She dressed as a man to work and provide for her familyfor about a half a century. This courageous act and powerful altruism, was rewarded by the Egyptian president himself. 

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March 30 th, 2015

A real undaunted mother, Sisa Abu Daooh has disguised as a man for 43 years in order to work in a man’s world to provide for her family. Her husband passed away when she was six months pregnant with her first child at age 21, and she was left penniless since. At the time, especially in the Arab world, it was improper for a woman to work in male-dominated sectors.


Work rather than beg

Her family and her brothers insisted she should find a new husband. She said:“All the time they kept bringing new grooms to me”. But for some personal conviction, Sisa Abu Daooh chose to remain single.  She decided to swap her women’s clothes for a local “jilbab” which consisted of a full-length robe with wide sleeves. She donned her hair in a white turban, a traditional Muslim headdress for men’s head. “I preferred working hard labour, like lifting bricks and cement bags and cleaning shoes, to begging in the streets in order to earn a living” she said as she hid her gender identity to protect herself from being targeted by traditionalists. “I decided to be a man …and worked alongside them in other villages where no one knows me.”


Losing femininity is challenging

Sisa Abu Daooh could have ended her affliction after her daughter’s marriage. But her son in-law had been ill and could not work. Being undeterred and resolute, the courageous mother carried on with her hard work to supply for the whole family. The lady of 65 told The Guardian that it was never an easy life but it was worth it. “When a woman lets go of her femininity, it’s hard. 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”. Time went by and despite her disguise,Daooh’s decision to reveal her decades of gender deception at time when the state has been punishing improper expression of gender and sexuality. Fortunately, her choice of clothing had nothing to do with sexuality. Today, the entire city of Luxor knows she is a woman.


Honorific recognition

Authorities finally became aware of her story. Qualified as the “Ideal Mother”, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president, handed her a prize and awarded her a medal for being an “exemplary worker mother” in the presidential place on 22 March in Cairo. Dressed in man’s outfit, she also received 50,000 Egyptian pounds (about R79,000). The honours did not seem to taint Abu Daooh’s determination to continue to rise every day at 6am to shine shoes in Luxor’s train station, according to her daughter,Hoda. The Egyptians celebrated Mother’s Day on 25 March, and Hoda brought her mother men’s shorts with a new djilbab as a gift. “She is not just a mother,” Hoda said, smiling. “She’s my mother, my father, everything in life”.


Disparity between men and women in the society is a reality almost everywhere. Unlike Egypt with the worst gender gap worldwide, South Africa also experiences gender inequality, despite relevant legislation trying to eradicate gender inequality. The most critical problem women face in South Africa is mainly being subjects of traditional and cultural law, rather than the formal legal and human rights framework of the country, according to Lesley Ann Foster’s article Gender equality is not on a strong trajectory.


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