“Changes related to women are the most critical changes in any culture and any country,” says Rev. Dr Andrea Zaki, head of Egypt’s fast-growing Protestant community. “You can easily give men freedom, but giving freedom to women is something remarkable.”
Zaki welcomes what he calls the “major and radical” reforms ushered in by the Saudi heir apparent, Mohammed bin Salman, such as permitting women to drive, and says he believes they will influence the whole of the Middle East. The Protestant leader says he believes in ordaining women, even though many in his constituency may not, and that he is a firm believer in equipping women to stand as equals alongside men in a culture that routinely puts them second. The issue of women’s equality is gaining traction. On International Women’s Day 2017 (8 March), President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced the “Year of Women”, and one of its most notable achievements was the passage of a law strengthening women’s inheritance rights.
But there is a long way to go. Only months before, the UN Women’s Egypt Achievement Report for 2016 found that women’s participation in the labour force “remains at a low 22 per cent” and women are less likely than men to access justice due to higher levels of illiteracy, insufficient knowledge of their rights, and discriminatory social norms. The figure of 89 women MPs – 15 per cent – is a record high. The report also noted the prevalence of domestic violence, sexual harassment and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
“Changes related to women are the most critical changes in any culture and any country. You can easily give men freedom, but giving freedom to women is something remarkable.”
Rev. Dr Andrea Zaki
Some Christians in Egypt are putting themselves at the forefront of efforts to challenge traditional role models, arguing that entrenched discrimination against women is not limited to any one religious group. Christians make up around 10 per cent of Egypt’s majority-Sunni population of 96 million, and Protestants have grown to 2 million in recent years, making them the country’s second-largest Christian denomination after the Copts.
While historically the Church in many countries has been accused of institutional sexism, in the Egyptian context, where churches live in fear of extremist violence, championing the rights of women has become a way that Christians, whom extremists would seek to divide from their Muslim compatriots, can emphasise the shared experience of Christian and Muslim women, strengthen generally good interfaith relations and serve Egyptian society.
Rev. Dr. Sameh Hanna, associate pastor of the 10,000-member Kasr El-Dobara Evangelical church in Cairo, lists a range of initiatives his church undertakes for women. “We equip young ladies to be future leaders in the church and the community; [we] agree to elect women as elders, we choose women of all ages … to be part of the decision-makers of the church, to give our congregation and our community a model.”
Other initiatives are aimed at Muslim and Christian women alike: a ministry for people who have been abused; a relief programme for impoverished single mothers in Upper Egypt; and a livelihoods programme for Syrian refugee women – in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – who have resorted to prostitution to feed their children. According to the UN’s refugee agency, more than 120,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Egypt. In some cases, “unfortunately the men sit in the camps and leave their wives to make money from men somehow”, Hanna says.
A Christian satellite broadcaster in the region aims to transmit the same values and principles as Kasr Dobara on a larger scale. SAT-7, which in 2016 was found to reach 21.5 million people a year across the Middle East and North Africa, is “trying to get a better society for everyone,” says Albert Fawzi, its executive director in Egypt. “And also, how we can help people to live together, because in this culture people are fighting, there are loud voices. So we are trying to say, ‘We’re here for you.’”
Speaking to British journalists on a visit to the station, Fawzi described a programme called The Coach, which encourages critical thinking and has tackled the acceptance of discrimination against women. “Many times you will find that SAT-7 will challenge your way of thinking … to reshape how you judge things. Why are you thinking that women are less than men?” Fawzi said.
“Many times you will find that SAT-7 will challenge your way of thinking … to reshape how you judge things. Why are you thinking that women are less than men?”
Along with The Coach, programmes such as Needle and New Thread and Speak Up have also tackled taboos linked to the low status of women. The producer of Needle and New Thread, Maggie Morgan, told World Watch Monitor she wanted “to create a programme that would empower young women to live a life that they choose, not just the one prescribed for them by their families and by society.” The show has covered topics such as education, work outside the home, choosing to marry or not to marry, how many children to have or not having children at all, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, female genital mutilation, depression, co-dependency, relationships with men and with families and friends.
The name of the show, launched in 2012 as Needle and Thread, is an allusion to change. “With a needle and thread, you can mend something torn, you can create something new,” she said via email, but after a few seasons the team decided to rename the show Needle and New Thread because “when you have a new idea, a new conviction, or a new thread, you can change the overall look of the fabric”.
Viewers, she says, get in touch via Facebook or WhatsApp to offer feedback or ask advice – on average about 10 calls per episode. “One woman called and said she demanded that her husband not be violent with her and had stood up to him, after an episode about domestic violence.”
Has the team received threats? “We have been criticised by older and more traditional viewers, and sometimes we get the odd angry young man sending us messages on Facebook, saying how ‘worthless’ our opinions on women are, or abusive messages about women, but we were never threatened.”
Other programmes are not aimed exclusively at women but attract many female viewers. Speak Up tells the story of a person, often a woman, who has faced difficult family issues such as relationship issues, addiction or sexual abuse, and his or her story is sensitively discussed by the presenter and a trained counsellor. Such subjects are considered taboo and while some relationship tensions are linked to cultural traditions, others have recently been made more acute by the government’s economic reforms, which has forced some Egyptians to work longer hours, placing family relationships under strain.
The programme aims to show viewers across the Arab world that God is “loving and caring”, says producer Amgad Shafik, and aims to reduce the stigma around discussing mental health issues. Viewers who call in to tell their story may be referred to counselling centres.
But Shafik says Speak Up is fulfilling a role the Church should be filling. “In Egypt, there’s a problem dealing with these kind of problems. The churches are [only] recently interested in helping people in this field,” he says. “I think it’s a little bit too late for that because the problems have evolved a lot, so [the Church] needs a lot of help from organisations outside.”
Not all church leaders are on board with this therapeutic approach to the struggles and failings of their flock, and others lack the resources to offer it. “Most of the church leaders rely on religious teaching,” he says. “The Church has a problem in not having counsellors. Not all churches have this vision for the importance of the role of counsellors, especially in rural areas and poor places.”
Christians in Egypt live with chronic low-level discrimination and the fear of extremist persecution. Christian women there are doubly disadvantaged by both their creed and their gender. By acknowledging the plight of women, SAT-7 and leaders such as Dr. Zaki and Dr. Hanna are engaging with Egyptian society, rather than retreating from it. Thus far, much, but not all, of the drive for women’s empowerment comes from men, but it is a start. Cutting across the sectarian divide, they are challenging all men to consider how they treat their wives and daughters. And rather than being divided from Muslims by extremists, they are appealing to all those who are open to change and greater equality.
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