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Egyptian Woman Says She Survived By Living As A Man

March 30, 2015

The secret to one Egyptian woman’s survival after she was widowed was to live as a man. In a culture that is dominated by men, this Egyptian mother said she was left without any other alternatives to support her daughter after the woman’s husband died over 40 years ago.

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.

“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.

So what happens now that the woman’s secret is out? She says she has no plans to dress like a woman in the near future. She has supported her daughter, enjoyed the freedom given to men in Egyptian society,  and she plans to continue to live the same way.

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.”

And that, Dear Readers, is the truth of it, Ms. Daooh is her daughter’s “everything…in life.”

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