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A Lesson in Equality and Empowerment

It’s Saturday morning and I’m working in Tennessee on a real estate development project, scheduling contractors to do site visits and submit bids. I made a trip to Starbucks for some caffeine and to read the news paper. A story jumped off the page that strike my heart and I couldn’t stop thinking about all morning. I call the story “Why Equality and Empowerment Matters”.

The New York times, March 26th edition titled the story “A Women’s Secret Life Posing as a Man In Egypt”. I present the story to you and hope it stimulates a discussion.

Chintana Vann

Full Story From New York Times International, Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sisa Abu Daooh, 64, said she first began dressing as a man to escape employment restrictions. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

AL AQALTAH, Egypt — She has worked for more than 30 years among the shoeshine men of Luxor. She sits with men in coffee shops, prays with them in the local mosque and dresses just as they do in pants or a traditional floor-length tunic known as a galabeya.

Many people believed Sisa Abu Daooh was a man until several weeks ago, when she publicly revealed her 42-year-old secret.

Perhaps surprisingly in a society where many hold conservative notions of gender roles, Ms. Daooh’s announcement was greeted not with condemnation but with curiosity and a flurry of mostly positive reactions from local news media and officials. On Sunday, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, personally gave her an award for being an extraordinary mother.

In an interview last week, Ms. Daooh, 64, said she began dressing as a man as a practical matter, to escape restrictions on women’s employment in a patriarchal culture and earn enough to support her daughter, Hoda.

But now, whether she still needs to pose as a man or not, she said she had no intention of changing. What began as a way to survive rural poverty has evolved into her preferred way of life and a means of navigating a world dominated by men.

Ms. Daooh shining shoes on the street in Luxor. She takes home an average of 15 to 20 Egyptian pounds ($1.97 to $2.62) a day. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“I’m thankful to God,” she said in a raspy voice that is at least an octave lower than the average man’s. Wearing a dark gray galabeya with a green scarf over her shoulders, she sat smoking cigarettes in a relative’s home on a dirt lane in the small farming village of Al Aqaltah, on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor.

Expressing comfort with her life in the role of a man, she kisses her fingertips like an Italian chef satisfied with a soup. “She even dresses this way at home,” said her daughter, Hoda.

Ms. Daooh found herself penniless after her husband died in the early 1970s. With few options, she made the bold decision to seek work as a man. “I worked in Aswan wearing pants and a galabeya,” she said. “If I hadn’t, no one would have let me work.”

The early years were hard. She faced verbal and physical abuse from anyone who discovered her secret. “Like this,” she said, smacking her fist into her hand. “I used to carry a wooden club with me.” She spent seven years working in construction and other manual labor, earning the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. Most of the time, the men she worked with either had no idea or did not care that she was a woman. “They’d say, ‘He’s good at his work,’ ” she said. “They’d offer me cigarettes.” Eventually, the other workers began calling her Abu Hoda, the father of Hoda.

Ms. Daooh’s decision to disclose her long-running impersonation came at a time when the state has been clamping down on unconventional expressions of gender and sexuality. The police have accelerated arrests of those accused of being gay or otherwise not conforming to gender norms since the military deposed the country’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013.

A large part of the reason her story has been so widely accepted by Egyptians is that there is no suggestion that her choice of clothing had anything to do with sexuality issues. Nevertheless, her story has demonstrated how many in Egypt are “pushing at the limits of traditional gender roles,” said Scott Long, a human-rights activist living in Cairo.

“While the state appropriately honors her for her courage, it imprisons others who call themselves transgender,” he said. “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.”

Inequality between men and women in the workplace is a reality most everywhere, but the gender gap in Egypt is among the worst in the world. According to a study by the World Economic Forum, only 26 percent of women in Egypt participate in the labor force, compared with 76 percent of men. In the study, the country ranked 129th out of 142 countries for workplace inequality.

As the years went by, Ms. Daooh switched to the less physically demanding trade of shining shoes on the street in Luxor, work she continues to this day, taking home an average of 15 to 20 Egyptian pounds ($1.97 to $2.62) a day. She said that until recently, only her family and neighbors in her village knew that a woman was lurking beneath the galabeya.

She said she had no plans to dress as a woman again. She lifted the white scarf wrapped around her head to reveal a close-cropped mat of silver hair. “See? There’s nothing else.”

Saturday was Mother’s Day in Egypt. To celebrate the holiday, Hoda bought men’s shorts and a new galabeya for her mother.

“She’s not just my mother,” Hoda said, smiling. “She’s my mother, my father, everything in my life.”

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