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.
“There is a wrong perception within the Coptic community that when that happens, it’s a broken family, it’s not a proper Christian family. If the young woman has sisters, they will be affected and they won’t have a good life. They’re looked down on in the community,” says Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on sectarian violence at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a nongovernmental human rights organization in Cairo.
When a Christian woman follows her heart against her family’s wishes, some families take drastic action. Many will send the girl to live with relatives in another part of the country or place her in a convent. “In such cases,” explains the researcher, “the girls are isolated from their communities. Families have even killed their daughters.”
If the woman runs off with a Muslim man, Christian families have been known to accuse the man and his family of abducting her and forcing her to convert to Islam. Though on occasion such kidnappings and forced conversions do occur, more often the woman has chosen to build a life with the man.
Such accusations are made to save face within the Christian community. Whether well-founded or not, they attract a great deal of public attention and inflame relations between the two religious communities. Indeed, many of the recent sectarian clashes trace their origin to some sort of incident involving a Christian woman and a Muslim man.
Similar scenarios involving married Christian women scandalize both religious communities, as the case of Camellia Shehata Zakher demonstrates.
Unlike incidents involving young, single women, cases involving married women often bring to light the taboo topics of Egypt’s discriminatory laws on religious conversion, spousal abuse and divorce.
Divorce, in particular, pushes hot buttons in Egypt, as the Coptic Orthodox Church’s stance on it differs considerably from the Muslim majority. The church forbids divorce, granting it only rarely and under the strictest of criteria.
Islamic law permits divorce. And for centuries, Muslim societies have administered it, albeit rarely and at the price of a heavy stigma on the couple, particularly the woman. Today, Egyptian law grants divorce for a host of reasons and Muslims — men and women — can file for it relatively easily.
The Coptic Orthodox Church, on the other hand, grants a divorce on only two grounds: adultery or religious conversion. Both carry steep penalties. Men and women who commit adultery can never remarry in the church. Those who convert forsake their faith and community forever, as they cannot reenter the Christian faith culturally or legally.
If a couple wishes to separate for any other reason, they must petition the church’s family council, a process that takes years and almost never yields a legitimate divorce.
“This is a problem that our society faces and we stand helpless on figuring out how to tackle it,” says Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of Watani, a Christian weekly newspaper headquartered in Cairo.
Christian couples in unhappy marriages often feel trapped, and when marriage counseling fails, many grow desperate. The picture is most grim for victims of spousal abuse. Some of these individuals contemplate converting to Islam as a way out of a miserable situation.
“In many cases, women convert to Islam to escape the dire circumstances in which they are living,” says Dr. Cornelis Hulsman, editor of the Arab West Report. Published by the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation, a Cairo-based group that supports peace- building efforts and promotes intercultural understanding, the report chronicles Christian-Muslim relations.
“Muslims see those girls struggling in difficult situations and they offer help. At the same time, they preach Islam,” he says. “And they do provide help, but once the conversion has taken place you cannot go back.”
Dr. Hulsman and his colleagues have observed an increase in interreligious tensions associated with conversions and mixed marriages in postrevolutionary Egypt and believe they will only escalate in the near future.
“These are all the old problems, but they have now become more tense,” he says.
“Not that it was good prior to the revolution, but it is now worse. It is certainly the case that conversions and mixed marriages are more likely to result in violence now than they were before the revolution.”
Divorce on the grounds of conversion to Islam generally tears Christian families apart.
“Life was stable,” says 23-year-old Simone El Gohany about life a few years ago, before her father left her mother for a Muslim woman with whom he had been having an affair, converted to Islam and filed for divorce. “Now I feel like the family is fragmented: There is no family. Stability makes a huge difference.”
The divorce has devastated the lives of the young woman, her two younger sisters and of course her mother. Under Egyptian family law, the father receives custody of the children when he converts to Islam and files for divorce.
To keep her children, the mother sent each of her two youngest daughters to live with different relatives. She then moved to a cramped apartment in a low-income neighborhood in Cairo. As Simone El Gohany explains, Egyptian authorities can only remove children from their mother if they live in a residence belonging to one or both of the parents.
Since the divorce, the children’s father has made no attempt to contact the girls or his ex-wife. He does not pay child support, and Egyptian law does not require him to do so. Still, the children fear he will show up one day or another and demand the girls move in with him. As a result, the girls no longer attend school.
The father’s conversion has also stripped the two youngest daughters of their Christian identity. In the eyes of the Egyptian government, when a father converts to Islam, all his children under the age of 18 automatically “convert” as well. The girls’ government records have all been changed, identifying them as Muslim. Public schools require they attend classes on Islam. Now officially “Muslim,” they can never marry a Christian man since the church does not recognize mixed marriages.
“Children who have been converted by one of their parents have two choices,” explains Ishak Ibrahim. “They either go to court — and the court usually rejects the appeal — and they leave the country, or they continue to practice their religion — because no one will ask why they go to church — but they just don’t get married.” The older of the two girls, now 15, is contesting the legitimacy of her conversion in Egyptian court. However, at each of several court hearings thus far, the judge has postponed his decision.
As for Simone El Gohany, she was legally an adult at the time of her father’s conversion and so retained her Christian identity. Throughout the ordeal, she has served as a pillar of support for her mother and sisters.
“She’s the one who comforted me,” says her mother. “We turned that page in our lives. She told me, don’t lose another year of your life.”
The recent college graduate, with a degree in engineering, nonetheless suffers serious repercussions as a result of her father’s conversion. She keeps what happened a closely guarded secret, even from some of her dearest friends.
“If my Christian friends knew, they wouldn’t want to deal with me because they wouldn’t know if I’m a good person or not,” says the petite young woman, wearing fashionable glasses with purple frames. As she speaks, she touches a small golden cross she wears around her neck. Her fingernails are painted pink with tiny flower decals.
“For my Muslim friends, they would think I have problems at home. That’s how Egyptians are. I only told my best friend because she knows me. It wouldn’t just be difficult, but shameful.”
Simone El Gohany continues to practice her faith devoutly and is an active member of her parish, teaching Sunday school to children. In addition to her youth, beauty and education, her mother comes from a prominent Christian family that includes doctors and successful businessmen. Nonetheless, the stigma associated with her father’s actions makes dating within the Christian community a major challenge.
“Not every family would accept someone whose father converted to Islam,” she says. Not long ago, she was dating a young Christian man, who expressed an interest in marrying her. But when he learned the truth about her father, he ended the relationship and never spoke to her again
“Conversion is considered a shame.”
As do all churches in Egypt, St. Mark’s in Samalut, a town in Upper Egypt, does all it can to prepare parishioners for and succeed at married life. Each week, it hosts a class on marriage and family life. Lessons include discussions on how to communicate with your spouse, deal with your in-laws and choose a suitable mate.
The classes attract men and women of all ages, though mostly young single women, couples and newlyweds attend.
Father Estafanos Shehata, St. Mark’s pastor, leads the parish’s efforts to help couples experiencing marital problems. For years, he has counseled couples on an individual basis and knows well the specific challenges many Christian women face.
“In rural areas, most girls get married only because the father wants her to marry the chosen man. They never ask the girl’s opinion on the marriage,” explains the priest. “The age difference between the husband and wife makes communicating difficult. If they come from different generations, it is even more difficult.
“What happens is the young girls don’t know how to express themselves sexually. Then when they get married, they have a big problem,” continues Father Shehata, who as a marriage counselor focuses first and foremost on opening the channels of communication between husbands and wives.
“And because there are social restrictions, when they come here we cannot always talk freely and openly and say, ‘You don’t give your wife what she wants or you don’t give your husband what he wants.’ But, we try to do all we can to help.”
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Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol and photographer Holly Pickett cover events in the Middle East for CNEWA.