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Life in Egypt for a Christian Woman: ‘Easy Prey’

Engy Magdy is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt, who will be writing for The Tablet. Here she offers an introduction to what her life is like as a Coptic Orthodox woman in Egypt.

Magdy

CAIRO – To be a woman in a country where most of her people see women as a disgrace, and at best look at her from a sexual point of view, it is a heavy burden, but even worse when you are a Christian woman. It is hell!

To be a Coptic woman, you are under many grievances by society and church alike. Coptic women in Egypt face two dilemmas: gender as a female and religion as Christians.

Sexual harassment can be described as an epidemic that spreads throughout Egypt. According to a 2013 study by the United Nations, more than 98 percent of all Egyptian women have been subjected to harassment.

But the study did not show how harassment differs from a woman wearing hijab to another who reveals her hair. Most Muslim women in Egypt wear hijab and therefore, the others who do not wear it are most likely Coptic. This means that the Egyptian man thinks he has the right to harass her, simply because he sees her as a whore and a disbeliever.

You may think that I am talking about a certain class of men, but in fact, most Muslim men (not all, but the majority) view the Coptic woman as easy prey. He thinks that he will have a religious reward if he can manipulate her emotionally and persuade her to marry him, or to convert to Islam, a phenomenon prevalent in Upper Egypt.

For me, as a liberal woman, I’m always careful of those men who I work with or meet in any place because the society looks at the woman who is liberal and open minded, especially if she is Coptic, in a very bad way.

‘Shame Will Be On You’

For the harassment issue, there is a stark and shocking reality, which is that the community always defends the harasser. If the victim tries to report the harasser, you hear words, “do not get caught up in a scandal … shame will be on you.”

And if the victim is Christian or does not wear a hijab you hear: “You have to be decent and cover up your body.”

According to a U.N. study, 84 percent of Egyptian women believe that “women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed.” Unfortunately, women play a big role in oppressing each other. Religious fanaticism and the claim of virtue make women blame the victim.

Although Article 306 of the Egyptian penal code states that sexual harassment is punishable by up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds or a prison sentence ranging from six months to five years, women in Egypt do not rely on the law to protect them because when a girl tries to seek justice, she is blamed or threatened. Usually, perpetrators get off scot-free.

In the case of Christian women, they are even afraid to file reports because of the discrimination against them by the police themselves.

Perhaps the most blatant example is Souad Thabet, a 72-year-old Coptic woman who was stripped naked by a Muslim mob and paraded around her village in Upper Egypt in May 2016. None of the perpetrators were sentenced in her attack.

Speaking to her a few months ago, she told me: “I feel humiliated. I am terrified for the future of my grandchildren.”

Living in Duality

I do not want to fall into the trap of generalization, but the shocking reality in Egypt is that the society, including most intellectuals or the so-called intellectual elite, live in duality. They talk about liberation and enlightenment without living those ideals. They look at women who are intellectually liberated as perhaps moral deviants.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is not different from society and the state in its practice against Coptic women. Although the Egyptian Constitution provides gender equality, there is a great legal vacuum and social injustice. For example, when it comes to inheritance, double injustice is inflicted upon women in this regard. Sharia law, which grants women half the share of men, applies to all Egyptians in this matter.

What makes things worse is that most Coptic families deliberately usurp the inheritance of women. While the Egyptian government asked the Church to draft family law for Christians, the Church overlooked the inheritance issue.

Another example is that if a husband dies, the guardianship of the children is granted to the grandfather, not the mother, so that in many cases, the fathers-in-law deprive the children of their mothers.

The Church in Egypt is governed only by the male culture prevailing in society. In addition to the issue of inheritance, there is more injustice when it comes to divorce. Coptic women are not allowed to ask for divorce.

Constant Sacrifice

Even if they are subjected to physical or psychological abuse at the hands of their husbands, it is shameful to ask for a divorce. In cases where women ask for help from the Church, the usual response from the priest is: “You have to sacrifice for your family … just pray for your husband and everything will be okay.”

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt does not allow divorce except in the case of adultery. In cases of civil divorce from the court, the Church doesn’t allow those who get divorced to remarry. According to estimates in 2012, there are more than 300,000 divorce cases involving Christians in the courts.

I spend about half my monthly salary paying for my daughter’s international school expenses so she can get a good education. However, I feel disappointed to think that when she grows up, being a Christian woman, it will be impossible for her to attain a leadership position.

When she is harassed or assaulted, she will not get her right to justice, and perhaps she will keep silent. As a girl with no brother, her cousins will share in the inheritance of her father. If her marriage fails one day, she won’t have a second chance.

These thoughts all gather in my chest, suffocating me when I think about my daughter’s future.

4 thoughts on “Life in Egypt for a Christian Woman: ‘Easy Prey’

  1. Ms. Magdy,

    I am praying for you and all Christian women in Egypt now. Thank you for sharing this. I truly had no idea what my sisters in Christ were going through.

    Always an email away,

    Jennifer

  2. I fully disagree with Ms. Engy Magdy’s article, which is both erroneous and biased. The Egyptian police do not differentiate between a female Muslim or a Christian victim of harassment, or any other crime. Egyptian men do respect their fellow Egyptian women even if they are non-Muslims. Ms. Magdy is earnestly solicited to produce a well balanced story that shows the negative and positive sides of Egypt rather than presenting a dramatic report that reflects her passive views about the society where we all live and respect each other. Thank you.
    Cairo, July 19, 2018.

  3. Why is her experiences being Denigrated? Islamic women have complained to about rape. Our American culture is just now admitting our problem. This has been a problem in history. I found out at museum that hat pins were for self defense.

  4. My heart goes to Magdy. Such a brave woman with compassion for fellow women oppressed twice from religious and cultural oppression.

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