Grandmother has made her way in Egypt's work world -- as a man

Story highlights

  • Sissa Abu Dahou recently was honored as one of Egypt's ideal mothers
  • But for 43 years she has dressed as a man so she could work in the conservative country
  • "People talked but I said I decided to be a man so I can take care of my small daughter," says Dahou

(CNN)Every morning, Sissa Abu Dahou puts on traditional male dress, known as a jalabiya, and heads into the streets of the Egyptian city of Luxor for a day of hard work.

But this man of the house is actually a woman.
The grandmother of two has dressed as a man for 43 years to avoid oppression and eke out a living in the conservative Muslim state.
    "Why did you do this mother?" her daughter asked during a recorded interview with Egyptian television network CBC.
    "Your father died and I was six months pregnant with you." she replied. "None of my siblings helped me. I raised you and sent you to school. Without money I could not have gotten you an education."
    A widow at just 21, Dahou was forced to fend for herself in Egypt's patriarchal south, where decades ago it was unheard of for women to earn their own living. Even in recent years, women make up barely 24% of Egypt's workforce, according to the World Bank.
    "It is considered wrong that I dressed as a man but no one can judge. Not you or anyone else. Only God can judge me," Dahou said, "People talked but I said I decided to be a man so I can take care of my small daughter."
    The breadwinner worked as a brick maker for just 25 piasters, the equivalent of a few cents, until she saved up enough money to buy a shoeshine kit. She found a place for her wooden box, painted with red hearts and the Egyptian flag, alongside the all-male shoe shiners of her community.
    "If it wasn't for my mother, I would have been on the streets" Houda, her daughter, told TV host Mona al-Shazly through tears. "Honestly I would have been in the streets. I did not find a home except with my mother. And even today my children rely on her."
    The years of sun and sand weathered and darkened Dahou's face and left her with a voice so deep and raspy she can easily be mistaken for a man. Her only child, Houda, eventually married and had two children of her own.
    Through the years the one-time housewife dreamed of owning her own business one day, a small street stand to sell snacks and cigarettes. After her interview on CBC television, the governor of Luxor province offered Dahou a kiosk and a cash advance. The maverick had one requirement- she would only agree to meet with the governor in male attire.
    "Even if I die, I will not take it off," Dahou said as she pulled on the male jalabiya in front of a TV camera, "When I had to dress in a woman's jalabiya when I went to Cairo I felt suffocated. No, I thank God. I don't want anyone to look at me or look at my daughter."
      Now the 65-year-old who earned respect as a man has gained praise as a woman. Egypt's President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, crowned her as one of Egypt's ideal mothers in an official ceremony last month.
      "If I was really a man, I would not have done this," Dahou told her daughter, "I would have gotten remarried. I would have left you who knows where. You would have been treated without dignity or left homeless. Thank God I was able to protect you."