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Spotlight: Coptic Women

text by Sarah Topol with photographs by Holly Pickett

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On 18 July 2010, Camellia Shehata Zakher, a Coptic Orthodox schoolteacher and wife of a parish priest, mysteriously disappeared after a reported quarrel with her husband. In the days that followed, Egyptian police launched a massive search for the 25-year-old woman. Media outlets across the country grabbed hold of the story and ran it around the clock, covering the events as they unfolded.

Rumors surfaced she had fled an abusive marriage and willfully converted to Islam. In response, church leaders accused Muslims of kidnapping and forcing her to convert.

Police found the woman five days later at the home of a friend in Cairo and escorted her back to her family. Church leaders subsequently placed her in an undisclosed location, reportedly for her protection. Camellia Shehata Zakher’s return to the Christian community ignited suspicion and anger among many Muslims, who believed she had converted to Islam out of personal conviction. An image of her wearing a niqab (the traditional Islamic head-to-toe dress and veil), the authenticity of which most experts doubt, began circulating in the media and on the Internet, intensifying suspicions.

Crowds of outraged Egyptians — Christian and Muslim — took to the streets in protests across the country as the story developed. On several occasions, protests turned violent outside churches, as angry mobs clashed. In total, more than a dozen people died.

Camellia Shehata Zakher remains in hiding to this day. She made only one public statement. On 7 May 2011, she appeared on a Christian television network to say she had never converted to Islam.

The nearly yearlong saga revealed Egypt’s deep-seated religious divisions. Sunni Muslims make up some 90 percent of the country’s 80.5 million people; the remaining 10 percent is Christian. Though the two religious communities have coexisted for centuries, in recent years tensions have flared. In the past year alone, several deadly attacks on churches and numerous violent street clashes have shocked the nation.

The incident also exposed the precarious, and at times dreadful, situation in which many Egyptian Christian women find themselves. Generally, they must carefully navigate society’s volatile boundaries and make tough decisions unlike their male counterparts or their Muslim peers.

Nowhere do these women tread more lightly than in matters of the heart. For the most part, Egyptians do not approve of relationships between Christians and Muslims. Families generally discourage adolescents and youth from interacting with members of the opposite sex from a different religion.

Christian families in particular often go to great lengths to prevent their children, especially girls, from developing relationships with Muslim men. If a young Christian woman does happen to fall in love with a Muslim, most families do everything in their power to dissuade her from pursuing the relationship further.

If a Christian woman dates — or worse, marries — a Muslim, the entire family risks ostracism within the Christian community.

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Tags: Egypt Cultural Identity Christian-Muslim relations Coptic Orthodox Church Women (rights/issues)