Monday, May 29, 2017

Observations from my Life as a Coptic Woman

I never actually liked to identify myself with my religion because I always felt it was a private matter for me.

Three months ago I was asked to give a talk about personal and professional development, as part of Sprint; a women’s development programme for undergraduates. The talk required me to give a brief about who I am and what I did throughout my life. I started thinking about what actually constructed me and what brought me to where I am today.

Two things I underestimated their effect on me came up as part of my talk: sexual harassment and religious persecution, which from now on I will call "genocide". I realized that I always chose to neglect these two factors that shaped a big part of my perseverance, persistence, suffering and mental health.

Daily labelling, insults, anxiety, threats, and discrimination are part of my life. Why I chose to neglect their effect on me is maybe because I wanted to show myself that I am strong enough and I can live my life normally. But neither was I strong enough nor could I live my life normally.

I am afraid to walk in the streets of any country that I go to, because of the societal construction of my personality as a Christian female in Egypt; a Coptic female. Originally, the word Coptic means Egyptian, but lately, it is used only to describe Christians in Egypt.

The Pharaonic Key of Life, and the Christian Cross

I am afraid if any man comes behind me, because this means that potentially he is going to put his hands on my body. The first time someone touched me, I was so young, maybe 11, and I was with my mom in a crowded area and I didn’t understand why his hand ended up so comfortably on my breasts. This never stopped, because when I was 23, someone managed to pass his hand so quickly between my buttocks and under a knee-length coat. Cars have stalked me, and different men have flashed their penises at me. I never feel safe. I used to carry a pepper-spray with me until I realized that if something happens, I never have the time to think to use it, nor the courage. I don’t know how to hurt a fly, let alone a human being.

Harassment for any female in Egypt is not a new story, but to me it consists of the “normal” sexual harassment, and the religious harassment, where men normally look at you and murmur some words because you are not wearing a veil, as if they have seen the devil. Of course, during the month of Ramadan, most of the females wear a veil, so you are clearly identified as a Christian in the street, and this increases the sort of religious harassment and staring people give you. This also happens away from Ramadan, on daily basis, some shop sellers would refuse to deal with you or treat you very badly, if they see you without a veil or wearing a cross.

I think I always hated being described as a “minority”. My family never immigrated to Egypt. We were all born here, and we speak the language. We might have different names but my mother’s name is the name of an Egyptian Pharaonic Goddess “Isis”, which has lately been defamed because of you-know-who terrorists. So, we belong to this land, that’s what I always felt, so why should I be labelled as a minority, and have to actually “ask” for my rights?

When I was 10 years old, I was the top student in my city, but my name was too “complicated” to be written on the top of the students’ list. The central examination board negotiated that they rearrange the students so they put a Muslim student at the top, even though we both had the same marks and my name starts with “A” in Arabic. They usually arranged the students who got equal marks according to the alphabet, but in that year, they decided to put the younger student first, because it was the only way to avoid a Christian being the top.

I have always felt scared for my family’s life. More than once, my father had rocks thrown at him or people spat on us while we rode the car. When we were young, our neighbours in the opposite building used to throw their garbage in our balcony, and gave me and my sister names whenever they saw us. My father always chose to greet them instead of never speaking to them. I think eventually he managed to win them through his kind treatment and love.

I went to a Christian school, so I felt I am not a minority because half the class was Christian. But this wasn’t the case at university, where people couldn’t even pronounce my name and usually made fun of it. They always asked me if I am a foreigner, and one TA made me lose marks, just because he didn’t like me.

I have always been scared to drink or eat during Ramadan fasting hours, I can’t, because people will keep staring at me and will stop me, possibly violently. But for young girls at church, it didn’t make sense when I told them not to eat outside the church after Sunday school, because most of them were fasting for the Mass. One time, a girl drank juice right in front of the church, I tried to stop her but I was probably late, because a man had already shouted and insulted her.

All the time, such situations made me feel I shouldn’t be shaken because I convinced myself that it was all because people were ignorant, not because there was something wrong with me. But the lack of safety, and bullying from a very young age have translated into deep feeling of rejection from the society as I grew up. Now, as Christians are being killed in groups by terrorists, I feel that I might die at any point. I don’t hate death, but I don’t want myself nor my family to suffer.

I realize also that it is not normal or healthy to live while anticipating death at any point. I also realize that writing these words hurts so much, as if I am standing naked to the world. But it is how my life is like, and how this society has shaped my personality to be like, even at the times when I am not in Egypt.

My anxiety is not formed of illusions in my brain, it is constructed by a society that never made me feel home. There is no safe home for me, and there will never be.

No comments: