Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Kidnappings, forced conversions, female circumcisions, and social discrimination: Christian women in Egypt face many problems – but the Catholic Church is working on their behalf.
It is a phenomenon that is scarcely known in the West: the kidnapping and rape of Christian women and girls and their forced conversion to Islam. “Before 2011 it affected perhaps six or seven girls in the whole of Egypt. But now the numbers have grown into the thousands,” said Fayez, a Coptic lawyer and human rights activist told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Very young girls are a particular target for radical Muslims, such as 14-year-old Nadia Makram. She was kidnapped in 2011 during a church service. Since then, her family have had no contact with her. Although the family know who did it, the police do not help them. “They even warned us not to pursue the matter any further. I must accept that my daughter has been kidnapped,” says Nadia’s mother, filled with pain. Particularly serious consequences result from the forced conversion to Islam that is demanded of the women who are kidnapped. Lawyer Fayez reports the case of the girl Jacqueline Ibrahim who was kidnapped and forced by Salafists to declare her conversion to Islam before the Al-Azhar University. “An example of the total disregard of her religion and convictions,” says Fayez.
The Catholic Church is now attempting to offer safe haven to the girls and women who are affected. In Minya, the Coptic Catholic diocese maintains a house of refuge for girls who had been kidnapped, where they are safe from their tormenters and can stay for six months or longer. Some girls have also fled into the house to escape kidnapping. Father Boulos Nasif, who runs the house, explained to ACN: “Here the girls are looked after and can speak about everything that has happened to them. We try to equip them to find their place in society again.” But many Egyptian Christian women face problems not only from radical Islam, but also within their own community.
A visit to Cairo’s “garbage district” shows this. The smell here is terrible. Trucks and donkey carts constantly deliver the trash generated by Africa’s largest city. Goats, dogs and chickens search for anything edible among the fly-infested rubbish heaps. Amid the piles of rotting domestic waste, plastic bottles, tyres and other trash, people sit and sort out the garbage. Pictures of the Madonna, crucifixes and images of Coptic saints show that Christians are living here. For generations, Coptic Christians have disposed of some of the garbage from the perhaps twenty million inhabitants of the megalopolis of Cairo. They are called Saballin, garbage people. They can make a relatively good living from the work – at least better than in the villages of Upper Egypt from which most of them come.
Rania and Marina, 17 and 14 years old, are growing up here in the almost exclusively Christian garbage district of Mukattam. Their fathers also work in the garbage business. The two Coptic Orthodox girls are friends. “We are constantly being harassed in a sexual way. Almost all men and boys do that here. In most cases I ignore it and go on my way. But on one occasion a boy of about 18 in a neighbouring Muslim district took matters too far. So I smacked him. The people took my side and rebuked the boy. I was pleased about that.” But courage like Rania’s is not always rewarded. Marina knows this from personal experience. “A Christian neighbour, about fifty years old, spoke to me in a very indecent way. I defended myself and answered him back. But then he went to my father and complained about my poor upbringing. My father took his side and beat me: a girl must not behave so disrespectfully. His lack of understanding hurt me more than the beating did.”
Sexual abuse which is silenced
Susi Magdy, a social worker, knows of many such cases. Susi, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, works for the Catholic Comboni Mission, and she herself lives in Mukattam. “The people here come from the rural districts of Upper Egypt and think in a very traditional way. The difference between Muslims and Christians is not very great there. It is very important not to bring shame on the family.” Therefore, in the great majority of cases sexual abuse is silenced. “Many girls are molested or even raped by their brothers, cousins or uncles. But it is a taboo subject within the extended family. Nobody goes to the police, or even to the pastor. In any case no one would believe them. It would be said that the woman had provoked it.” As well as sexual abuse, physical violence also plays a major role. “My father beats my mother. It happens again and again,” says the 14-year-old Marina. But the social worker Susi is optimistic about this: “Here in this district, domestic violence is on the decline. It is mainly a problem in the older generation. In the past it was socially acceptable for the husband to beat his wife. But the campaigns that we and other organizations have run in the last few years are now starting to bear fruit here.”
Educational campaigns against the circumcision of girls have also been successful in the district. This form of mutilation is very widespread among both Muslims and Christians. “In the countryside it is also the rule among Christians. But here in this district, the campaigns in recent years have put an end to this brutal practice,” says Susi.
Studies reserved for the higher classes
It is also social, not religious, reasons that make it unacceptable to large parts of the rural Christian population for girls and women to study and make a career, according to Susi. “Sadly there is very little progress here. It is virtually impossible for a Christian girl from a village to start a course of studies.”
Just a few kilometres away, in downtown Cairo, it is a different world. Here, in the German Catholic girls’ school near Tahrir Square, the higher classes send their children to lessons. Every day, buses from their well-kept districts bring the girls to the school, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo. Nada is 17 and a Coptic Orthodox Christian. Next year she will sit her university entrance exam. And then she wants to study literature or psychology – she doesn’t exactly know which yet. But she definitely wants to go abroad for a time. “For us women, many things have changed for the better since the revolution in 2011. People’s way of thinking has changed. Under Mubarak, women’s rights campaigners had no chance to express themselves openly. This has now changed.” Her fellow pupils agree. “The women have lost their fear of fighting for their rights,” says the Catholic Helena, also 17 years old. She wants to study art.
Nada, like the social worker Susi, is convinced that the position of women in Egypt largely depends on social status and less on religion. There is a wide gulf between town and country, she says. “I do not feel any restrictions, either from my parents or among my circle of friends, on account of being a woman and a Christian. They are all educated and open-minded. It is the same for us here at school. The majority of girls are Muslims. But there are no problems. We are like sisters.” But her 16-year-old Protestant fellow pupil Nadine, who wants to go abroad later to study business, recounts the bad experiences of her mother. “My mother is a teacher. At the school where she teaches, she has to fight very hard because she is a Christian. Again and again she is asked why she is not wearing a headscarf.”
Christian women’s lack of a headscarf results in girls being constantly approached in the street in an indecent way. “Because we Christians do not wear a headscarf, many boys and men think we are easy prey. We are used to that. Nobody takes it seriously,” says the 15-year-old Sheri. “It also largely depends on the district you are in.” But her friend Helena, 16, sees it as a growing problem. “In my opinion, sexual harassment has increased overall. I believe that it is associated with the internet and television, where sex is a constant topic. It rubs off on people.”
But the social norms of a conservative country even impose restrictions on educated women and girls. “My brother can cycle through the district without any problems. I would not be able to do that. In some parts of Cairo, a woman on a bicycle would be pelted with stones,” Nada says. “I hope the day will come where I can ride wherever I want, just like him.”
For many years, Aid to the Church in Need has supported projects by the Catholic Church in Egypt devoted to promoting the dignity of women.