Poverty continues to be a colossal issue in Egypt, especially in rural areas. Oftentimes, it comes down to making a decision between taking a job you hate or feeding your family. This issue is especially amplified for women who have even more limited job opportunities and are restricted by social order. One woman, desperate to make a living, did the unthinkable. Sixty-four-year-old Sisah Abu Daooh disguised herself as a man for 43 years to provide for her family. After becoming aware of her plight, the city of Luxor decided to reward her with the “ideal mother” award.
Seen donned in the traditional galabeya and imma, Sisah navigated her way with ease through construction sites, farms, and the streets. After her husband passed away during her pregnancy, Sisah knew that she had to become the breadwinner. She did not want to resort to begging, so she decided to make this radical decision to work in tough environments. After her daughter grew up, she married her off to a man who died shortly after. Sisah knew in that moment that it would become her life mission to provide for her daughter and grandchildren. She worked in a variety of demanding jobs including building bricks and shoe polishing.
“I preferred working in hard labor like lifting bricks and cement bags and cleaning shoes to begging in the streets in order to earn a living for myself and for my daughter and her children. So as to protect myself from men and the harshness of their looks and being targeted by them due to traditions, I decided to be a man … and dressed in their clothes and worked alongside them in other villages where no one knows me.”
Sisah said that she will continue to live as a man. “I have decided to die in these clothes. I’ve got used to it. It’s my whole life and I can’t leave it now,” she proclaimed. On Sunday the 22nd, she met the president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi who delivered the award to her personally.
What makes Sisah’s story so special is that she defied major gender norms. Her resistance of society’s standards ended up shedding light on the problem of unemployment and women in the workplace. While there are some jobs that may be viewed as more acceptable in Luxor, such as domestic work or perhaps teaching, and less savory ways of earning money such as begging, shoe polishing and farming are generally not included as options for women.
There are several layers to this issue. Firstly, class and nationality play a big role in job opportunities for women. Foreign women and middle and upper class women generally have more job opportunities in Egypt. Secondly, location determines the availability of jobs. Women in urban areas have more options than women in more rural areas like Luxor. Even for men in Luxor, the spectrum is narrowed down to manual labor, agriculture, or jobs of the similar nature. Sisah did not have an array of jobs to pick from like, say, a British woman in Cairo.
The presence of women in male spaces generally makes people uncomfortable. Sisah was very well aware of this, and that is why she decided to disguise herself instead of “fighting the system.” What would have most likely happened was that she would not have even been considered for the job. Even if by some crazy chance she was, it would not have guaranteed safety or a stress-free work environment. This seems to be a common issue for many women in Egypt.
Kiosks and street vending jobs are generally occupied by men in Egypt. A young woman in Cairo decided to go against the grain. Mennatullah El-Husseiny, 23, followed her dream of serving people tea in her own stand. In neighboring Sudan, which shares many cultural values and customs with Egypt, hot tea stands are almost exclusively run by women. This is unheard of in Egypt.
“I worked as a saleswoman for four years, and even though I gained a lot of money, I wasn’t satisfied with my achievements, so I decided to look for something else I love doing. And serving people at coffee shops was it… I’m not in need of the money I’m gaining from work. But I was raised to be independent and to do what I love the most without putting people’s opinion in consideration…It’s called the shock theory, people are sick, show them everything they don’t want to be revealed and enjoy their reactions.”
She certainly did shock some people with her short hair and tattoo. Fortunately, even with the local police and thugs constantly harassing her, the community stood by her and supported her right to do what she loved. She did have to close it down because it was becoming increasingly difficult to stand her ground, but she hopes to open it up again in the future.
These two women represent two different worlds in Egypt. One woman who had to hide behind a man’s body; another who fought for her right to remain visible where she was unwanted. There are many different factors that define and differentiate these women’s situations. However, what it comes down to is that these women stand for the millions of women in Egypt and worldwide who continue to fight for their right to live, to speak, to be.
God willing, honoring Sisah with this award will open up a more honest and pragmatic conversation about the state of women of all classes in Egypt.