In the 1970s, Sisa Abu Daooh’s husband died when she was six months pregnant with her daughter. With a nearly all-male workforce, she wasn’t able to find employment. As a widow, she faced stigma that excluded her from resources. As a single woman, she encountered sexual harassment. Her family urged her to remarry, but she feared becoming dependent on a man who might reject her daughter.
Sisa refused to accept the poverty, inequality and ridicule that society called her fate. Unable to access rights as a woman, she decided to live as a man. She shaved her head and wore men’s clothes and relinquished her female identity.
Disguised as a man, she found work making bricks and harvesting wheat. When she could no longer work in the fields, she took up shoe shining. As a man, she was able to put food on the table. She protected her daughter from discrimination as a fatherless child, as her now motherless daughter had the male figure that gives a child a name, a reputation and visibility.
After living for 43 years as a man, the local government recently honored Sisa as the mother of the year. Her symbolic assertion of power is powerful itself, and beyond the glory, there’s a message: Women are still the second sex.
When the only way a woman can create a life of dignity is to stop being a woman, women are still the second sex.
When the world doesn’t need to question why Sisa had to relinquish her female identity and just inherently understands, women are still the second sex.
Women are still not free to be women. This lack of freedom manifests in forms such as street harassment, rape, unequal access to education, child marriage, FGM, lack of adequate health care, the glass ceiling and pay inequality. In places like Sisa’s hometown, it emerges as invisibility – the complete lack of access to resources to create a life of dignity that Sisa faced.
The invisibility of women also means losing their names. UN Women recently released a video in which men from Egypt and the Middle East are asked to say their mothers’ names. Some don’t know it, and others refuse to say it out of shame. When women become mothers, they are referred to only as “the mother of her eldest son.” Eventually, their names are forgotten.
Equality Now and Women Aid International are two of the many organizations working to ensure that all women are not only visible, but have agency and autonomy. Women and girls across the world are taking action of their own. On March 22, a group of women in Afghanistan defied a ban on female participation in burials and carried the casket of Farkhunda, a student who was murdered by a mob of men for a false rumor that she burnt the Quran, to the cemetery for a proper burial. Sisa took back her power by the hand of a man, and these women took back their power by putting a casket on their shoulders.
Whether dressing as a man or defying unjust laws or reading this blog, women and men are working toward global equality. Without our unrelenting insistence of equality, the second sex will become co-equal with the first.