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Egypt’s President Awards Woman Who Dressed as a Man for 40 Years to Support Family

After her husband died in the 1970s, a pregnant Sisa Gaber Abu Douh assumed a man's identity and worked as a brick laborer and shoe shiner.

by Liz Fields
Mar 23 2015, 5:43pm

Photo via le bureau de la présidence Égyptienne

A single mother who dressed as a man and worked as a laborer and shoe polisher to support her family for more than 40 years has earned the praise of Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

A day after Egypt celebrated Mother's Day, Sisi honored Sisa Gaber Abu Douh at the presidential palace Sunday, calling her an "exemplary working mother" and awarded her a cash prize equaling approximately $6,500.

Abu Douh donned the clothing after her husband died when she was just 21. She was six months pregnant with her daughter, Houda, at the time. Despite decades of living in disguise and eschewing local tradition by being the family's breadwinner, the 65-year-old said Sunday she'll continue to wear a jilbab — a floor-length loose fitting robe — and man's turban.

"I will work dressed in a man's robe until I die,"Abu Daooh told AFP.

Related: Sisi Says Egypt Now Knows Muslim Brotherhood Members 'Do Not Deserve Sympathy'

After the death of her husband, Abu Douh assumed a male identity and went to work making bricks and later polishing shoes and begging for money in the streets in her hometown in Luxor governorate in central east Egypt.

Women now are employed in positions across various sectors of society, but in the 1970s when Abu Douh went to work, manual labor and family breadwinning was still very much a male domain.

"I cut my hair and wore a man's robe and turban, and a man's shoes to get a job. It was hard to get opportunities as a woman," she said. "It was hard [to dress as a man], but without it men would have hassled me and stopped me from working, and maybe even assaulted me."

She told the Guardian that after a while, many locals knew she was a woman and that she "wasn't trying to keep it a secret." But eventually as her notoriety grew, Abu Douh's story reached the ears of Luxor governorate officials, who bestowed their own award on the grandmother Tuesday, honoring her as an "ideal mother" for her efforts.

Abu Douh's daughter says even now at 65, her mother continues working to support the family.

"My mom is the one who still provides for the family," Houda said." She wakes up every day at 6am to start polishing shoes at the station in Luxor. I carry the work kits for her as she now advanced in age."

Related: At Egypt's Economic Conference, Development and Human Rights Are Uneasy Bedfellows

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields