An Egyptian woman recently revealed her decades-long secret identity. Sisa Abu Daooh has lived as a man for the past 42 years, not because she identifies as male, but in order to make life easier. A woman feeling the need to disguise herself as a man in order to survive highlights Egypt's vast gender discrimination and deeply rooted patriarchy.
Wondering if life would be less complicated as a man doesn't go beyond an internal feminist rant for most women, but Daooh made it a reality. After her husband died in the early 70s, Daooh found herself with no money and few options, and she began dressing in men's clothing to get a job and support her daughter. "I worked in Aswan wearing pants and a galabeya,” Daooh told The New York Times. “If I hadn’t, no one would have let me work."
According to the Times, she worked in construction and manual labor jobs for seven years, earning less than a dollar a day. She later switched to shoe shining in Luxor, which she's done for the past 30 years, taking home about two dollars each day. Daooh said the early years of her disguised identity were difficult, and she used to carry a wooden club with her because she was verbally and physically assaulted by those who uncovered her true gender.
Her coworkers, however, either had no idea she was actually a woman or didn't care and started calling her Abu Hoda, the father of Hoda. To The Times she said:
They’d say, "He’s good at his work." They’d offer me cigarettes.
Daooh said she doesn't intend to return to dressing as a woman. It's unclear what led Daooh to publicly reveal her secret now, as Egypt as whole still believes in very normative gender roles, but surprisingly the Egyptian president personally gave Daooh an award for being a great mother. Although being transgender or gay is not illegal in Egypt, it's illegal to perform "homosexual acts" in public, and police have increased arrests of those rejecting conservative gender norms or sexuality. Scott Long, a humans rights activist in Cairo told The Times:
While the state appropriately honors her for her courage, it imprisons others who call themselves transgender. If the government cared about principles, not exploiting prejudices, it would respect people for being true to themselves and for doing what it takes to keep themselves and their families alive.
Daooh's decision highlights another major social problem in Egypt: discrimination against women. Needing to disguise yourself as a man in order to get a job should not be necessary in any society.
The gender gap in Egypt's workforce is extremely grim. Only 26 percent of Egyptian women participate in the labor force, while 76 percent of men do, according to a study by the World Economic Forum. There is also a large division of labor based on gender, with most women working in "low-productivity" jobs, according to a study by EconoWin.
Although Egypt's constitution technically recognizes equality between men and women, it doesn't play out in real life, and Daooh is proof of this. It's somewhat encouraging that her country has accepted her decision, but the widespread gender discrimination that led her live as a man is truly troubling.