Coptic Woman Details Horrors of Living as a Christian Female in Egypt: 'It's Hell'

(Photo: Reuters/Stringer)Christians attend Sunday service in the Virgin Mary Church at Samalout Diocese in Al-Our village, in Minya governorate, south of Cairo, May 3, 2015. Copts have long complained of discrimination under successive Egyptian leaders and Sisi's actions suggested he would deliver on promises of being an inclusive president who could unite the country after years of political turmoil. However, striking out at extremists abroad might prove easier than reining in radicals at home. Orthodox Copts, the Middle East's biggest Christian community, are a test of Sisi's commitment to tolerance, a theme he often stresses in calling for an ideological assault on Islamist militants threatening Egypt's security.

A Coptic journalist has detailed her frustration living as a woman in an Egyptian society where men regularly treat Christian woman as whores, and shared ways in which the Coptic Church has also mistreated females.

Engy Magdy, a Cairo-based journalist, authored an op-ed published by Brooklyn-based Catholic news website The Tablet on Wednesday that detailed the plight that women, especially Christian woman, face in Egypt.

"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," she wrote. "It is hell!"

As many women across the world today are speaking out about the sexual abuses they have faced at the hands of men, Magdy said that sexual harassment in Egypt should be described as a country-wide "epidemic." She cited a 2013 United Nations study that found that 99 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to harassment.

In the Muslim-majority African country, Christian women and other religious minorities who don't cover their heads in public are targets.

"Most Muslim women in Egypt wear hijab and therefore, the others who do not wear it are most likely Coptic," Magdy said. "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," she continued. "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."

Magdy explained that she is careful to watch out for those types of men, some of whom she has worked with in the past.

"[S]ociety looks at the woman who is liberal and open minded, especially if she is Coptic, in a very bad way," she added.

What's worse, Hagdy said, is that in many cases, the community will always defend the harasser against allegations of a woman who was harassed.

She added that in some cases where women report harassment, they are told not to "get caught up in a scandal" because "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,'" Magdy stated.

Victim shaming

A 2017 United Nations study found that 64 percent of men in Egypt admit to having harassed women on the street.

The study also found that victim shaming is common in Egypt, even among women. Eighty-four percent of women surveyed agreed 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," Magdy explained. "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."

Magdy stated that Christian women are afraid to file reports because they fear police will discriminate against them if they do.

"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," Magdy recalls. "None of the perpetrators were sentenced in her attack."

Magdy claims that Egyptian society is in a state of "duality," where it announces the importance of "liberation and enlightenment" but does not live out those ideals.

#ChurchToo

She also criticized the Coptic Orthodox Church for not differing from the culture in the way it treats 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," she explained. "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 way women are slighted is the fact that the guardianship of their own children is usually transferred to a male relative when the husband passes away. In many cases, she said, mothers are deprived access to their children by their fathers-in-law.

"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," she stated.

Coptic women are not allowed to ask for divorce in the church even if they are physically or psychologically abused by their husbands because it is considered "shameful," according to Magdy.

"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.'"

No hope for the future?

Magdy said she spends about half of her monthly salary just to send her daughter to school so that she can receive a decent education. Yet, Magdy knows that when her daughter grows up, 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," Magdy wrote. "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."

In addition to the abuse and mistreatment outlined by Magdy, Coptic Christian women and girls are at greater risk of being abducted. Last year, an ex-kidnapper detailed the inner workings of network of abductors who get paid by Islamic extremists to kidnap Coptic Christian girls.

At least eight Christian women were reportedly kidnapped this year in Egypt. 

Egypt is not the only country where women face extreme amounts of abuse and harassment. 

Earlier this week, Bishop Joseph D'Souza, the president of the All India Christian Council, told The Christian Post that India is in dire need of its own #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. His comments come as India was recently ranked as the most dangerous country in the world to be a women and as a number of clergy abuse cases have rocked churches in Kerala in recent months.

"The Indian church is part of a larger Indian society," D'Souza said. "The Indian society has a very chauvinistic attitude. It is rampant inside and outside the church. It is important that our children and families are taught about the value of the girl child and the woman and frontly deal with the issue of dowry, which so many of our girls end up being abused or harassed or some end up marrying non-Christians."

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