By Joseph Mayton
CAIRO: Christian Solidarity International Board Member Michele Clark went to Congress last week to detail the abuse of Coptic women and girls in the country. Her testimony was likely to hit home with US lawmakers who have been bombarded with almost daily reports of the abuse met out to Egypt’s Christian minority at the hands of Muslims.
“These reports are not allegations nor should they be disputed,” said Clark, who is also an adjunct professor at George Washington University. “Coptic women disappear. Coptic women are forcibly converted, or converted under false pretenses, and Coptic women are forcibly married to Muslim men.”
In 2009, Clark and Coptic women’s rights activist Nadia Ghaly released a 42-page report, where they detailed dozens of alleged cases of abuse against Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The report sparked worries in the United States over the situation facing Coptic girls and women in Egypt. CSI’s USA President John Eibner called the report’s findings “deeply disturbing,” and said that they “should challenge human rights activists and institutions…to undertake, as a matter of urgency, further research into this form of gender and religious based violence against Coptic women and girls in Egypt.”
Reading the report and the numerous cases brought up by Clark and Ghaly are certainly disturbing, but they may not tell the complete picture of Coptic women in Egypt.
They tell of women being forced to convert to Islam, being “manipulated” into wedding Muslim men and are forced out of their homes via kidnappings and sexual slavery.
But a number of women’s rights activists and leaders in the country have said these reports may be misleading and are not actively detailing the reality on the ground.
In particular, rights activists say the missing young women draw attention to customs among traditional Copts, particularly the lack of access to divorce and the practice of arranged marriages.
“A key reason for the so-called ‘kidnappings’ is that Coptic women have no right to divorce,” said Nahed Abu Komsan, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, which is the leading women’s rights group in the country.
“This means that if their parents tell them they are going to marry their cousin, they have to submit to this and have no choice… So they turn to Islam, not because of a spiritual belief in the religion but because it gives them more of an opportunity to choose their life’s path,” she said.
The report published by Clark and Ghaly details “first-person” accounts of their interviews with families in Egypt who have reported the “kidnappings” of their daughters. Abu Komsan says that while a handful of the reported accounts are possibly true, the vast majority of the girls have not been kidnapped and are rather looking for a way out of their current situation. The families, she and others say, report their daughters as kidnapped as a way of “saving face.”
One Family’s Story
The house was quiet. Where a university student had once spent time studying, all that remained were pictures of her friends, icons of Jesus Christ and other memories that had once been integral into the house. Mary, a young Coptic woman, had apparently been kidnapped by a group of Muslims and forced to marry and convert to Islam. Her mother sat in tears as she detailed the story.
“She seemed tired one night and got a call from a friend and then said she was heading out to the mall for a while. She didn’t come back,” said the mother. “We are certain that she had been drugged and taken away. We tried to find her and went to a police station to report her missing.”
Days later, the police said that their daughter was found, but that she was not the victim of a kidnapping, instead she was safe with her new husband and was attending classes as before. Upon further investigation, the father, who asked not to be named along with his wife, confirmed that he had gone to the school to see for himself.
“I went and saw her. She was wearing a niqab and was surrounded by security people and I could not get close,” he said. The family has attempted to get in contact with their daughter, but she has shunned their every attempt. The family maintains that she was kidnapped and coerced into marrying a Muslim.
Upon leaving the interview, two European journalists who had been reporting on Coptic kidnappings were stunned. They were not convinced. “I don’t believe them,” one of the reporters said about the family’s story. She added that “the girl appears to have run away from a family that doesn’t accept Muslims and wouldn’t let her daughter marry.”
Difficult in Facts
The above story highlights the growing difficulty in understanding the “truth” over the alleged kidnappings. With the Coptic Church forbidding divorce, more and more women are turning to Islam, not because of faith, but because it grants them more rights in daily life. The ongoing media campaign by some Christian organizations to promote the “terror” campaign against Christians in Egypt has done little to promote an understanding between the two groups, who have far more mingling than is often reported, said one Egyptian journalist.
“We have always had inter-mixing. People, I think believe that Christians live in their little ghetto and never go out, but the truth is far more positive than is being reported,” said Noha Radwan. She said that she has numerous friends who often date one another, “and they are Muslim and Christian. It isn’t a big deal for many.”
She did admit that there is a gap between the conservative factions of both Muslim and Christian communities who are virulent in their hate for the other.
“This creates the semblance of distrust and when it is added to the families of both Muslims and Christians that refuse to allow their daughters the freedom to love who they want, we get the kidnapping reports,” she said, adding that “the number of inter-faith relationships is actually larger than one would believe by the media and these families are not typical.”
Religion over culture
“It is not necessarily a societal problem, it is more religious issues that face women in our society,” said Abul Komsan. “Women face leaders that force them to do things that they do not have any desire to do. They do certain things, such as running away from their family and converting to Islam because it is the only way to get out of their designated role their family has for them.”
Laura, a Coptic woman in her mid-twenties living in Alexandria who asked that her surname not be used, agreed. She said that while a few of the kidnappings may be authentic, most of the media reports are based on fabrications made by the families to disguise their daughters’ dissatisfaction.
“We, as Coptic women, have to deal with what our priests tell us and force upon us on a daily basis and often many women just can’t take it any longer so they just leave their families and run off with a Muslim man,” she says.
“Look at almost every other Christian church on the planet,” says Laura. “They have had some sort of reformation and changed many of the ‘natural’ roles of women throughout the past thousand years, so why is the Coptic Church still living in the past? If they don’t begin to change then I believe that many more women will leave and their families will continue to say they are kidnapped just to save face.”
George Ishaq, a Coptic scholar and leading political activist said that the country’s minority religious groups need assistance if Egypt is to move forward in creating a more just society based on universal rights, not simply those of the Muslim majority.
One must remember, as Laura said, that there are very real grievances that need to be sorted out in the New Egypt such as personal IDs, the creation of places of worship and the overall sense that the two faiths are having a hard time getting along.
“We do mix, we do business together, so the issues of building churches and conversion are very important and should be in the forefront, not the very difficult to prove kidnappings,” she said.
But, if Egypt is to move forward on Coptic-Muslim relations in the New Egypt, the near constant drab being reported by the international Christian networks needs to be more balanced than it currently is. Only through creating a culture of peace and tolerance can these two groups begin to rebuild what has been a fractured relationship for years.