I am a Coptic Orthodox woman, born and raised in the church, I find it frustrating when Coptic men make sexist remarks and are very misogynistic. I often feel ashamed of the cultural heritage of our church and how influenced we are by Arabic and Judaic ideologies. Even some women agree with these sexist ideas and continue to see themselves as submissive and secondary to the men. You only have to walk into our church to see the segregation of men and women. I am not only speaking about during the liturgy, but also during meetings and social events. My concern is that this cycle of ‘Egyptian’ culture will not end with the new generations because it is still ingrained in many of our practices.
Before you start to accuse me of heresy etc. notice I said Practices NOT Beliefs. We fail to practice what we preach because we are so caught up in the ‘coptic’ aspect of our identity that we forget we are Orthodox. We are Christians. We should adhere and worship Christ only. Jesus should be our role-model, therefore when we put others down, exclude people and judge, we are directly contradicting the teaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
So how can we separate our ‘culture’ from our faith (Christianity)?
I, myself am not an expert. I am simply a Christian woman seeking answers and a way to enhance the experiences of women in the church. Our church is intent on sticking to traditions passed down directly from Jesus’ apostles (which I fully agree with) BUT we fail to see that there is a difference between making minor changes (that adhere to the true meaning of Christianity) and major changes (that can affect our Salvation).
For example: a change in the wording of a vow, made in the wedding ceremony will not affect our salvation. I am not asking for changes to our beliefs or to ordain women priests (or any of these sudden conclusions that the men jump to when feminism is discussed in the church). I will discuss this in more detail further on.
1) Men and women are equal.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28)
Adam and Eve were created equal. They both sinned and one is not to blame over the other. God punished them both because they both committed the one sin (i.e not wanting God).God did not condemn Eve for ‘giving Adam the fruit.’ It was the serpent that tempted her. (Gen 3)
There is so much misogyny fuelled by this argument every time it arises. I cringe every time a speaker in a youth meeting brings this up because the guys will latch onto any comment that implies it was Eve’s fault. The girls as usual become the scapegoat for blame and the men feel entitled to argue that Eve was evil. This is not a problem, they are just silly boys. The problem is that the speaker never does anything to correct them. Letting these comments slide (to be polite or avoid conflict) leaves the women listening; feeling alienated, weak and guilty (for a crime which we never committed).
If I feel dominated by men in my place of worship, I will probably seek elsewhere to worship. Just as anyone who might feel threatened in a social situation, might escape to feel comfortable and seek safety. The church should be this place of safety, in fact, it is our safe haven from the evils of the physical world.
“Don’t ask, just pray” seems to be a recurring message. Kids no longer attend Sunday School because they are told the same thing every week. Their questions are said to be ‘unimportant,’ ‘irrelevant’ or ‘silly.’ When these kids are shunned for exploring their spirituality in the safety of their church and reprimanded or laughed at, they begin to question their role in the scheme of the church. Is the church not one body? Should the arm say it is more useful than the leg? Why is one gender considered more useful than another?
One example that particularly agitated me was when a speaker made a sexist remark concerning the idea of women wanting to get married to a rich man so they don’t have to work. Women were portrayed as lazy, stupid and superficial. Did anyone counteract this assertion? Only I (because my blood was boiling) and everyone stayed quiet out of respect or fear. I simply held my ground and said “that’s not true,” because a lot of easily-influenced and misinformed males were sitting in on the sermon and I felt that it was my duty to correct this statement, for the sake of the women of our church who have been objectified and made to feel inferior for far too long. It is due to side comments and ill-informed remarks (and honestly, a lack of interest in the issue altogether) that leads to these assertions made about men and women’s roles in the church and in our society.
2) Strong Christian Women:
In the Bible, there are so many examples in the Old and New Testament of strong women who were in positions of power, who lead armies and were brave, loyal, cunning and compassionate. We should not forget that these women exist.
Every Sunday at church, I do forget that they exist. I feel that they are always placed second to the patriarchs. I am (once again clarifying for people who like to jump to conclusions) not disrespecting the great fathers of our church or our many male saints, I am only saying that the women who helped to spread Christianity, the women who played a part in keeping our faith alive through persecution; they should not be ignored. They deserve equal recognition. So every Sunday, when the ‘Commemoration of the Saints’ is read to the congregation, why is only one mentioned? That being the glorified virgin Saint Mary… I am well aware of her importance (May her interecessions be with us all).
Count for yourselves:
As this, O Lord, is the command of your Only-Begotten Son, that we share in the commemoration of your saints, graciously accord, O Lord, to remember all the saints who have pleased you since the beginning: our holy fathers the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the preachers, the evangelists, the martyrs, the confessors and all the spirits of the righteous who were consummated in the faith. Most of all, the pure, full of glory, ever-virgin, holy Theotokos, Saint Mary, who in truth, gave birth to God the Logos. And Saint John the forerunner, Baptist and martyr; Saint Stephen the archdeacon, the protomartyr; the beholder-of-God Saint Mark, the evangelist the apostle and martyr; the patriarch Saint Severus; our teacher Dioscorus; Saint Athanasius the Apostolic; Saint Peter the priest-martyr and the high priest; Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Theodosuius, Saint Theophilus, Saint Demetrius, Saint Cyril, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the theologian, Saint Gregory the wonder-worker, Saint Gregory the Armenian; the three hundred and eighteen assembled at Nicea, the one hundred at Ephesus; our righteous father great Abba Antony, the righteous Abba Paul, the three saints Abba Macarii, and all their children the cross-bearers, our father Abba John the hegomen; our father Abba Pishoi the righteous perfect man, the beloved of our good Saviour; our father Abba Paul of Tammoh and Ezekiel his disciple; my masters the Roman fathers Saints Maximus and Domitius; the forty nine martyrs the elders of Shiheet; the strong Saint Abba Moses; John Kame the priest; our father Abba Daniel the hegomen; our father Abba Isidore the priest; our father Abba Pachom, of the Koinonia, and Theodore his disciple; our father Abba Shenoute the archimandrite and Abba Wissa his disciple. And all choir of your saints, through whose prayers and supplications, have mercy on us all and save us, for the sake of your holy name, which is called upon us.
One. One female saint, albeit the Mother of God. But why is it that a multitude of male saints has to follow. Are we teaching our girls that they cannot be saints? That their lives don’t matter to the church because no other female will ever be mentioned in the commemoration?
I am not asking our priests to throw in extra female names to balance the numbers, I am merely asking for the reasoning behind this. So far I have not received a sound explanation as to why only one female is mentioned. No amount of reasoning excuses the ideology behind this inequality. It seems to me, no one actually cares. This apathy is evidence for the lukewarmness of the congregation of our church (the Coptic Orthodox church). We are simply not questioning, it seems we are afraid of being accused of heresy or division of the church. Every discussion in youth meetings is met with silent stares and awkward thumb-twiddling. Silence. We are afraid to delve into our unanswered questions in fear of judgement.
You may argue that this does not affect anyone, but it does. It leads us to question the importance of females in our church. If the women (alongside the men) who shed their blood in the name of Christ are not even mentioned in our liturgy, what hope do we have for ourselves? What defence can we bring up when men criticise our worth in the church? If only men are seen as important, or more important than women, then women will lose interest in serving the church. This creates a divide and is what leads to the segregation of women and men in the church.
3.) Cleanliness and Holy Communion
I feel that most of the laws concerning women’s roles and the restrictions from having Holy communion during our time of the month are archaic and irrelevant. Before you tell me we have to stick to the traditions of the fathers etc… Yes I believe they are important. However, my concern is that we do not separate the theological matters from the cultural ones. Menstruation does not change my relationship with God. I am not impure. I will not be condemned for a natural occurrence that is outside of my control. Being a woman should not separate me from the congregation on a monthly basis. My devotion to God during my time of the month could be whole-hearted in comparison to a non-menstruating male who may be thinking impure thoughts during the liturgy. What I mean is that my soul is connected to God, not my body. I can still pray and dedicate my life to God, regardless of my bodily state. My soul lifts up to heaven in prayer, so why should my hormones and womanhood affect this?
4) Women in the sacraments:
Before I begin, let me reiterate the point I made earlier about the way misogynistic practices infiltrate our practices; and that there is a difference between practices that affect our salvation and those that are purely cultural.
Why must every Egyptian parent at a wedding ceremony wish young women ‘luck’ in finding a husband? Why has marriage become so central to our notion of happiness. Though it may be a wonderful way to live in communion with Christ and your ‘one true love’ yada yada yada… Is this all my role is as a woman in the church? To make my parents happy with grandchildren and be a breeding machine for my husband? (I am not reprimanding those who are happily married and are raising their kids in the church, I am simply highlighting the idea that this is all women are expected to do)
Women who have not found a husband (a nice young man who loves Christ…pretty rare) by age 30 (hear the sound of a thousand Egyptian ladies sighing in grief at the thought) are constantly given a pity party. “Poor girl, she’s not married yet…she’s getting old,” “I hope you get married soon” etc. are real examples of conversation in our church and it honestly frightens and astounds me. Why is a woman’s worth based on her ability to have a man desire her and get married? Not to mention that most of these men are ‘blameless’ when push comes to shove. Boys are raised to see themselves as more powerful, more important..they have more freedom than their female counterparts. Like most men, they have a sense of entitlement. Women are seen as ‘irrational,’ ‘rude’ or ‘crazy’ if they don’t appreciate a man’s advances. Like somehow, a guy who has barely known God all his life, drinks, smokes, ‘is a bad boy’ etc. turns around and decides that because his parents go to church, he somehow deserves a ‘good christian wife’ who will raise his kids in the same manner she was raised. But alas, the cycle continues.
Why would you expect this type of woman to like you? Why has our society made it acceptable for men to live their lives in this way and not be judged, but the second a woman ‘ruins’ her reputation, she is undesirable and is blamed for her actions. Men are easily forgiven because…well they are men. “Boys will be boys” right? It may be difficult to change a mindset of an entire culture or society, but we must break this cycle.
Okay so let’s skip ahead and say that you’ve found a nice, God-fearing man- the type your parents would actually let you marry; after gruelling interrogations, several group meetings, escorted dates and the constant barrage of telephone calls from other elders in the community who might call your parents to snitch on you if they (God forbid) should see you with a person of the opposite sex… Let’s skip ahead to the actual wedding.
Now I’m not talking about the reception. That is one event in which the church is completely forgotten and all hell breaks loose (pun not intended). The beautiful ceremony. I am not dissing the sacrament at all. I am simply disturbed by some of the wording, which again should be altered and will not affect the essence or the sacredness of marriage.
Ahh… So I’m sitting in church wearing my nicest summer dress, fanning myself with the booklet and wincing in pain because I’ve had to smile for too long (because my natural face screams ‘I’m going to stab you’ although I can’t help it). I’m hoping this thing doesn’t take too long, because it’s hot and my leg is sticking to the wooden bench. A kid is crying behind me and the priest is speaking a whole lot of words I cannot understand. Then time comes for the vows (this was my first wedding) I prepare myself to be emotionally wowed like all the movies I’ve watched… this is going to be cute I think to myself, and I put down my make-shift fan. I wipe my sweaty palms on my dress and stand up (because everyone else seems to have stood up…). I smile eagerly, waiting for the moment. You know, the moment that makes you wish you were in a relationship, I’m expecting heartfelt ‘I do’s.’ (my parents should have warned me they wouldn’t be included) I had my hopes so high. So, I look up at the beautiful bride and the groom and I hear this :
To the Groom:
My blessed son … may the grace of the Holy
Spirit strengthen you to take unto yourself
your wife, in purity of heart and in sincerity.
Do all that is good for her. Have compassion
on her and always hasten to do that which will
gladden her heart. Take care of her as her
parents did in love and in humility
remembering that you have been crowned by
this spiritual and heavenly marriage and
confirmed by the grace of God. Remember
that if you fulfill the divine commandments
which urge you to look after your wife, the
Lord will bless you in all you do, because His
blessing is enjoyed by those who live in
harmony: He will grant you blessed children
and a long peaceful life; He will bless You in
this life and the life to come.
Okay, that was not too bad. beautiful words, let’s move on.
To the Bride:
And you, blessed daughter … and happy
bride, you have heard what was commanded
of your husband. So you must honor and
respect him, do not disagree with him but
increase your obedience to him over what was
commanded many times. For you are now
alone with him and he is responsible for you
instead of your parents.
So you must receive him with joy and cheer,
do not frown in his presence. Do not ignore
any of his rights upon you and fear God in all
your deeds with him. Because God the Most High commanded you to submit to him and obey him as you obeyed your parents.
It goes on to say that a woman should call her husband ‘master’ like Sarah called Abraham and how God will give the couple many children… Don’t believe me? Read more here
….. I turned to my mother with a horrified expression. Did I really just hear that? Please tell me this is a joke. Okay so a man is told to care and love his wife (what else would you expect him to do? Is that something that has to be taught??) Then, the Bride is given a list of demands? Like excuse me? If I had never been to a wedding before and then I was the Bride hearing this, I would be out of there in 10 seconds flat.
‘Do not disagree with him?’ Really? Am I expected to give up my beliefs, my likes, my thoughts and take on his? Are his thoughts more legitimate than mine because I am a woman? Can you see how outdated these words are? Please tell me I’m not overreacting. If more women seriously thought about these words and their repercussions, if men in the church even cared about how their wives were expected to behave and feel, these words would be changed in an instant. Why must these archaic terms and conditions be utilised still in this day and age. “Do not ignore any of his rights upon you” Excuse me? Where are women’s rights? Does this excuse rape? Of course men are entitled. Society, even our own church enables this. Like I said before, if women cannot feel safe in the House of God, where will we go?
I cannot fathom how anyone thinks this is an appropriate statement to make in church. To make anywhere. It’s not fair to those women who have abusive husbands, men who take advantage of the fact that this is what was promised them on their wedding day. What else can they expect, when the church has just handed over a woman to her husband and must ‘submit’ to him? I honestly refuse to use these words if I ever do get married.
I will not utter these words from my mouth, because I am a firm believer in cutting this cycle of misogyny and forced gender roles. Woman as child-bearer, submissive, living in fear and lacking conviction and strength. Women are not taken seriously. We aren’t even considered worthy to stand in the altar and serve the Lord as deaconesses because ‘we’d be too distracting for the lustful eyes of men.’ Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought we were Christian. We are equal. Man and woman were created equal. So where do these ideologies come from?
This has been my point all along. Many details of the practices in our church have no solid grounding in Faith or even any proof from the words of the Gospels. We keep following the old traditions that were put in place by (who else?) men, used to keep women in their ‘place.’ The defence anyone will give, when asked why things like the wedding vows cannot be changed, is that “That is how it’s always been, we must keep the traditions of the apostles and the church fathers.” What they fail to realise is how unimportant these details are in the scheme of things. If we change the words (to something more … I don’t know…egalitarian) this will not affect the overall message of the sacrament. If the message to the bride considered her as a human being equal to the man, and not as an animal to be bought and sold… it might say something like ” as your husband respects you, respect him also and love each other” (or something of the like).
So I sat down again, reflecting on what I had just heard and decided If I should ever get married, I would never say those words. How can they say this with a straight face? My eyes gazed downwards and I started burning red with anger. I felt embarrassed as well that there were people at the wedding who were not Egyptian. What were they thinking? Must our beautiful church and faith be viewed in this light? We are never going to be able to bring people to our church and to Christ, if they observe these behaviours. I, myself cringe at the thought of attending other weddings and hearing these phrases over and over again. With an awkward smile, I congratulate the Bride and Groom as I leave and hear a thousand ‘0balek’s’ (no direct translation: similar to ‘hope you one day get married’) on the way to the car. My mum is smiling, I am just shattered…
As I mentioned previously and very briefly, women are not given any official roles in our church. Other than priests ( I am not arguing for women priests here) men can be deacons, subdeacons, archdeacons, singers, helpers etc. They are all given the ‘tonia’ (cloak) and they stand at the front to take part actively in the mass. Women are seated in the pews of course. Upon asking my mother and other sunday school teachers why women do not have roles in the church… they tell me ” Oh we do! We can sing in church and we can clean or serve the church on other ways. Everything is a service.” Apart from the obvious gender expectations (which I won’t delve into right now) women’s roles are not made official, because let’s face it – once again, they are seen as less important. No one cares.
As a child, when you are told that your role is not important, you believe it. You believe that men are superior to you in some way, shape or form. On the other hand, the men see women as inferior, they believe that being a woman makes you weak, unimportant and unnecessary (maybe not all men, but if you’re getting defensive… I want you to question your beliefs growing up and how they were shaped by your parents’ expectations of gender). If you think this is not the case, reflect on this scenario I came across on social media (LINK) .
This Facebook page (linked above) named ‘Women Deacons in the Coptic Orthodox Church’ caused quite a lot of controversy (not surprisingly), especially an article that was posted about women and girls being ordained as chanters. To my pleasant surprise, many women were starting to see the light (girl power!) however, I found this gem in comment from an Egyptian man:
“Because the bible says for woman they should remain silent in church so how come they can become Deacon and for their ordination is this was approved by the Cathedral and HH pope Tawadrous or not???”
(I’ll leave out his name, but you can see for yourselves if you scroll down the FB page that there is a plethora of sexist, uneducated and unethical comments (mostly from men but also women…sadly).
Where in the Bible does it say women should be silent? Jesus appointed women to serve in the early church after his resurrection: Mary, Lydia, Martha etc. The mother of God served in the temple from a young age. It disgusts me that this train of thought is still evident in a lot of men’s minds. CHRISTIAN men especially. Before all culture, race, language, nationality or ethnicity, we are CHRISTIAN. That is what these people seem to constantly forget. Christians are to treat everyone with love. That includes women, or are women not seen as people? Yes women can be ordained as deaconesses, it is a tradition (but you only keep the ones you agree with right?) this man thinks he has a right to assume what is allowed or not allowed, putting himself in a place of authority simply because he is a male. I will leave you to wander through this page and pause to think about how each of these men are making women feel. ( If you don’t care, *sorry to judge* but you are not loving your neighbour and that is not following the commandment of Christ).
Based on many observations over the years, I have come to the conclusion that most people in our church continuously choose to ignore the blatant truth of equality and feminism (which has been a dirty word for too long) and choose to defend their arguments with outdated and irrelevant quotes that serve no purpose in our beliefs. The details, the wording, the minute actions that exclude women, alienate women and elevate men to a higher status are hurting the church. We can not have the Body of Christ split. One gender is not more important than the other. I urge you to think about women in the Coptic Orthodox Church (a minority group within a minority group), if we do not stand up for ourselves (not out of pride or contempt but in true unity and regard for equality), we will lose our youth. They will flee to other churches who offer a safe and supportive environment. They will cease to listen to words that reveal misogynistic beliefs, those men whom you influence will continue growing up, feeling entitled, never having respect for women and their worth. The women who have not had their eyes opened to this issue, will continue allowing men to downgrade them, control them and will never feel the true joy of equality.
A church divided cannot stand. A house divided against itself must fall.
So basically, I could rant on and on about this topic, but alas, I am growing weary and my words will probably fall on deaf ears. For those of you who are reading this and agree with what I’ve said or have some suggestions or points I could add, feel free to comment
For those who want to argue, maybe you should read a little more and think about your reasons, chances are it’s been engrained in your mind from a young age. Feel free to do your own thinking
–> Just a Dreamer here <–
Here is the next segment: The mistreatment of women in the Coptic Orthodox Church