On the Southern Diocese of the United States website, a priest wrote that, while men and women are inherently equal, part of women’s punishment for being the first to sin is subjugation to the rule of her husband. Citing a “Q&A on Feminism” from the 2001 WWF convention, that same priest stated that men and women are equal but have “different roles.” He proceeded to quote Fr. Moses Samaan as saying: “The subordination of woman to man and her exploitation do not reflect the order of nature as created by God, but rather the result of the sin.” The roles and the value of men and women in the Church are conceived of as separate. If man’s role is to lead, then, what is a woman’s role?
According to Fr. Samaan, women are to be pure, humble and obedient like the Virgin Mary, helpful like Lydia in the book of Acts, ascetic like nuns, and overall generous and giving. All of these are virtuous qualities to be sure. However, the qualities of pureness, humbleness and obedience are being mistranslated into ‘quietness.’ Women in the Church are told to obey and to be quiet. In an article published by Pope Shenouda III in the late 1990s, he outlined the merits of a Coptic woman. The Pope stated that the issue at hand was not women’s rights, but rather women’s virtues. Accordingly, a Coptic woman must let her husband feel freedom, must not nag him, must be observant and gentle, and must care for her appearance. Is this all the Coptic woman is meant to be: a good, pious and beautiful wife who does not nag her husband?
Women in the Church are largely expected to care for and raise children at home while men lead, and become the priests, bishops and deacons that we look to for guidance. On the LA website, Fr. Moses Samaan outlined three methods of service for women in the church. First, women can be deaconesses (a recent development). Second, they may choose a life of chastity as nuns. Third, they become wives, mothers and, following the death of a husband, widows. Fr. Samaan wrote further that women should not be upset about being in lower hierarchical positions because, “It is women who actually benefit from this arrangement since a [true] Christian life must have humility and self-denial.” On another church website in Milwaukee, a priest wrote on “women in Orthodoxy” that while men and women are equal in prayer and upholding the sacraments, women cannot teach others in the church.
While it may be implied through Sunday school and Church teachings that men should also take a personal vow of virginity, most online resources on the subject focus on women and reference St. Mary. On the topic of “Marriage and Virginity” on the Coptic Orthodox Church Network, it is outlined that the practice of virginity is intended to keep the soul pure so that “[She can] devote herself to the Heavenly Groom.” In 2016, the Coptic Orthodox Church was accused of forcing women to take ‘virginity tests’ before allowing them to wed. The Church has since denied this claim. According to a contemporary newspaper article, Coptic women (and some men) spoke out about the usage of these tests, arguing that virginity testing is a humiliating practice meant to ensure a woman’s purity and faithfulness to her future husband. It is a complete violation of a woman’s autonomy. This obsession with women’s meekness and virginity clearly does not equally target men’s purity.
We, as a Church and community, lose greatly when women are valued for their virginity, motherhood and subservience in marriage. They are told to be quiet and stripped of their inherent value as human beings and as children of God. They are told that their greatest achievement and contribution to the Church is their offspring. As a consequence, if they do not bear children, they are maligned and cast as not having a place in our community. In truth, if men come into the Coptic Church viewing women through a sexual lens and only valuing them for their ability to be mothers and wives, their respect for women will be shallow and fickle in all aspects of life.
All women can and do contribute to the Church, leading others in meaningful ways. Coptic women have stories to tell, meditations to share and sermons to preach, but as a church they are told it is more virtuous for them to be quiet and listen. We all lose when we do not elevate women’s voices and listen to their words.
There are many examples of Coptic women contributing to both the Church and community. Jacqueline Isaac is the leader of Roads of Success, an international non-profit focused on helping women, refugees and persecuted minorities in the Middle East which has served 400,000 people worldwide. Nermien Riad, founder of the non-profit organization Coptic Orphans, leads initiatives that have cared for over 55,000 children in Egypt since it’s establishment 30 years ago. Dr. Donna Rizk founded Orthodox Women’s Ministry and authors the blog Learn Pray Love, where she uses her extensive knowledge of theology and Middle Eastern Christianity to teach and mentor both men and women. Beyond the many modern examples of Coptic women’s leadership, there are the saints and pioneers who came before. Saint Verena is recorded to have taught Europeans personal hygiene and the rules of medicinal herbs in 300 A.D. Tamav Irini led the first generation of nuns in the desert in the early 1970s and was a spiritual mentor for both priests and nuns.
Women also contribute to our communities by sharing their stories. Sally Zakhari is a Coptic woman who shared her story of molestation and maltreatment within the Church, and single handedly forced the Church to publicly reckon with the problem of sexual misconduct. Engy Magdy, a Coptic journalist, has discussed her experience and detailed the misogynistic nature of Egyptian society and Church culture. There is a lot to be gained by listening to all these stories and experiences. We should ask Coptic women how to make the Church a more inclusive and safer place.
I conclude with a personal story of how women in churches are viewed and treated differently by men. Once, in pre-COVID 2019, I saw a little girl filling up plastic cups of water to drink after communion. A young boy walked up to her and snatched the water bottle out of her hand and said: “Only boys can do that.” He proceeded to fill the cups himself. The young girl walked off to sit in the pew with her mother. This example may, at the surface, seem inconsequential. It is not. These are the boys we are raising in the Coptic Church. Boys mimic their elders and look at girls who want to serve and say: “No. Only boys can do that.” We are raising our girls to unquestioningly obey them.
Women in our Church are being maligned. They are viewed as valuable as long as they remain virginal, subservient and grow up to be caretakers and homemakers. Women in the Coptic Church have a lot more to offer than their obedience and humility. They can be and are leaders, speakers and writers. Women have stories to tell and by allowing them to share their stories and speak with leadership and conviction, the Church as a whole will grow. Women have a place leading in the Coptic Church, and not only as congregants in the pews.
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Mak Kaoud is a psychology student in Michigan who enjoys writing, reading and making art. They have always been interested in feminism and human rights.