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Gender Segregation in Egyptian Churches

Gender Segregation in Egyptian Churches

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Culture Public Liberties Religious Discourse

Friday 15 December 202302:14 pm
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الفصل بين الجنسين في الكنائس المصرية… هل يتناقض مع الإيمان المسيحي؟

Sara, accompanied by her younger brother Joseph, headed towards the church to attend Sunday mass. The siblings walked in hands intertwined, but as soon as they reached the outer courtyard, parted ways. Sara moved towards the stairs on the left, while Joseph headed towards the stairs on the right, by the inner door. Once inside, the boy sat on the seats on the right, while the young woman paused for a moment, to pull a head cover out of her handbag. Then, she walked towards the seats on the left side. During prayers, she became distracted, as she wondered why her and her brother were separated for worship.

In churches across Egypt and other diaspora countries, women and men sit separately, with women taking the left side and men on the right. This practice is not in alignment with the spirit of Christianity, in which men and women are able to engage with one another; mingling between the sexes is not considered a source of temptation. The Gospel emphasizes that sin originates from the heart, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28). According to a number of researchers and Christian figures, this practice of separation, though inconsistent with religious doctrine, aligns with certain prevalent cultural norms, and is likely implemented to avoid societal criticism.

Church design

Church design and architecture does not delineate specific sections for women. However, in our churches in Palestine, among the oldest Coptic churches, there are separate areas for women. According to Zakaria Beshir, a researcher in Coptic heritage, historical documents do not reveal when this segregation began. Beshir explained to Raseef22, “At the dawn of Christianity, there was no separation between men and women. Many women held roles as evangelists and deacons, the highest rank in the priesthood, which the Egyptian Church no longer allows women to hold.”

The practice of separating male and female worshipers in Coptic churches is inconsistent with religious doctrine. Rather, it aligns with certain prevalent cultural norms. Segregation during worship has likely been implemented to avoid societal criticism.

Some churches from the 7th century indicate the beginning of this practice. The Saint Barbara Church in Coptic Cairo features an upper chamber allocated for women. However, it is unknown whether this was intended to separate women and men during prayer, or due to the small size of the church and the need for space, or to align with the customs at that time. In the same area of Cairo, the Church of Abu Serga has an upper chamber, and in it, the altar, the place of prayer, is located at the center of the church's nave, indicating that the separation was not intentional. It is another church, not just a designated space for women, suggesting that the idea of the upper chamber may not have aimed at separating women from men but perhaps protecting women from pagan oppression.

With the spread of mosques in the 10th century, the absence of allocating spaces within them for women, except for at the Banat Mosque in Al-Ataba, central Cairo, became common. This mosque is an exception, and was established by a father of daughters who built it as a vow until he could marry them.

In the 14th century book Misbah Al-Zulmah, by Father Bishoy Ben Kebre, it is stated that “the priest turns north towards the women and then right towards the men.” Here, mention of separation of the genders is explicit. However, other Egyptian churches abroad have integrated women and men in worship since the 1990s, in order to align with the foreign societies in which they live. Meanwhile in Egypt, there has been no change except for at weddings.

Hanan Mikhail, an inspector at the Ministry of Antiquities, agreed, adding that the White Monastery in Sohag and St. Pijol the Red in Sohag, both dating back to the 4th century AD, are monastic, with men attending prayers on the first floor and women on the second. However, there is no structural evidence for such division. Hanan points out to Raseef22 that at the beginning of Christianity, there were few followers, and no seats at churches. Worshippers made do with spreading mats on the ground and building 'mashaatib' adjacent to the walls, designated for the elderly. With an increase of Christian converts, separation emerged as a tool for organization.

Dr. Naseef Fahmy, head of the Sociology Department at the Institute of Coptic Studies for the Orthodox sect, believes that church is part of the society to which it belongs. In rural areas and popular neighborhoods, men and women do not mingle – even at social events. Therefore, people find comfort in this separation at church. In more affluent neighborhoods, however, families participate in events together, although they do maintain gender-division during rituals of condolences and funerals. Recently, the church has begun to allow mixing during wedding ceremonies.

The struggle of the offspring

Many Coptic Egyptians abroad seek to preserve their identity and traditions. Separate spaces of worship for women and men is seen as necessary in order to feel connected to the customs of their homeland, and to mitigate the influence of Western conventions.

Rayet David, a 67 year old Egyptian who has been living in Austria for 40 years, works as a translator for the Austrian Ministry of the Interior. David believes that the idea of separation is unrelated to Christianity, and stems from the racial and conservative origins of the church. For children born abroad to Egyptian parents, as they mingle within their more liberal adopted societies, they discover alternatives to segregation and thus abandon it. As for children born into mixed or multi-cultural families, many are faced with questions and disapproval. Non-Egyptian wives insist on sitting next to their husbands and children. David tells Raseef22, “What's surprising is that the church allows foreign worshippers to mix, but prohibits it for its own children!”

Many Coptic Egyptians abroad seek to preserve their identity and traditions. Separate spaces of worship for women and men is seen as necessary in order to feel connected to the customs of their homeland, and to mitigate the influence of Western conventions.

In some regions, bishops, such as Bishop Daniel, the bishop of Maadi in southern Cairo, have decided to abandon policies of separation. This started with activities involving the youth, such as Sunday school, or the banning of gender segregation during trips, before spreading to prayer and worship, ultimately allowing men and women to sit together during mass and other rituals.

According to Dr. Sinout Shenouda, a secular thinker and a member of the Sunday Schools Development Committee, Christianity does not segregate women and men in worship. Women have participated in Evangelism, and some Coptic hymns recited during prayers beckon, “Come, disciples of the Lord.” There are prophetesses like Hanna and Phoebe, heralds and deacons, and Saint Veronica, who traveled through Europe teaching personal hygiene and hair care. These figures did not cover their hair in church. According to Dr. Sinout, women were not present in society between the 8th century and the early 20th century. Dr. Sinout explains to Raseef22 that for much of recent history, women lived in isolation, as can be seen in the ‘mashrabiya’ (latticed windows) of old houses, built to shield women from the eyes of passersby. Consequently, women did not attend prayers in churches; instead, they worshiped in a separate area, called the Ladies' House.

Shenouda adds, “Throughout my career, I have never read a text indicating the segregation of women from men in the creed, not even in the sayings of the saints. However, the emergence and continuation of the idea of separation are linked to societal culture. Even today, events (weddings or funerals) are held with men separated from women, even in some upscale neighborhoods. I see no solution other than confrontation and change. In the church I attend in Maadi, there is no separation, and even the bishop emphasized banning separation, whether in prayers or Sunday school activities. Also, in some churches in New Cairo, families sit together during masses. However, in most neighborhoods in Egypt, some priests adhere to conservative ideas. This culture, associated with the fear of women's interaction with life, persisted with the advent of Islam in Egypt during Ottoman rule until Muhammad Ali, who sought the renaissance of the state and education. Subsequently, Ismail Pasha carried European ideas and the emancipation of women, leading us to the era of Umm Kulthum's concerts and the speeches of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, where we see women and men sitting side by side in modern attire.”

In Christianity, women and men are equal. Children and the younger generations, more immersed in their adopted societies through education and work, are more susceptible to finding a gap between their adopted culture and their heritage. Many live freely, and distance themselves from the church or the community they were born into.

The migration of Egyptian Christians to Western countries began with the emergence of Islamic groups in the 1960s and during the rule of President Sadat. Violence against Christians led to the emergence of “diaspora Copts”, who left Egypt for the United States, Canada, and Australia, prompting the Egyptian Church to establish churches for its members abroad. By 1952, businessmen began to travel and settle abroad, transferring their business activities.

According to Ashraf Amin, who has been living in Canada where he operates youth services at Sunday schools, some Egyptians are shocked upon entering mixed churches, whereas others embrace the idea of freedom and integration. There's a third group that falls in between.

Ashraf tells Raseef22, “People don't realize it's just a custom and not a doctrine.” He points out that he often sacrifices serving as an usher to join his family in the mass, sitting next to his wife and children because they enjoy being together. Segregation based on gender diminishes family cohesion, creates distinctions, and makes girls feel lesser. “The idea of the distinction between women and men is not present in our beliefs but is imported from a non-Christian society. The Gospel honors Mary and elevates her above humans and angels. The idea of focusing on women's clothing to preserve men is illogical, despite some priests and bishops discussing it. Many have rejected it, especially since it is unfair and inhumane to force someone to dress in a certain way to avoid tempting others.”

Society's culture

The Egyptian Protestant Church allows women to pray alongside men during Mass, a practice considered by other denominations as inconsistent with the conservative Eastern Church. Members of other denominations are often shocked and surprised by this.

Pastor Rafat Fikri, head of the Dialogue and Ecumenical Relations Council in the Nile Evangelical Synod, states that the Evangelical denomination has never designated a specific place for women during worship in the church. In the past, churches in Upper Egypt upheld traditions where women sat apart from men, but over time, this custom faded. Fikri emphasizes to Raseef22 that his church has never faced any societal criticism for mixing. He asserts that the church should adhere to Christian culture and impose it on society, not the other way around. In doing so, the darkness of society can be confronted with light.

On the other hand, Pastor Matta Badee, head of the Creed Committee, mentions that worship practices before Christianity took place in homes and tombs. In the past, families did not allow their women to appear before men, even from behind windows. He points out that “the matter depends on the societal culture that isolates women from life.” With the arrival of Islam in Egypt, separate prayer areas for women were designated in mosques. Mixing might cause criticism. Badee notes that Egyptian churches in diasporic communities carry this mindset, and male worshippers turn right whereas women turn left, as they do in Egypt. Even children born abroad are accustomed to this and accept it. This may vary with newly constructed churches where mixing occurs more naturally.

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