by Mariz Tadros
On the 18th of May, 2019 G., a Coptic female nurse living in Sydney, Australia was suffocated by a plastic bag and stabbed seven times as she was leaving the hospital after completing her night shift. The murderer was her husband. Insider information suggested that on the 16th of May, a high-ranking member of the Coptic Orthodox clergy pressed that she return to her husband despite being informed that her husband was allegedly a drug addict and was continuously beating her. It is alleged that G. did not want to return to her marital home, but she was told this is her cross and she must carry it. The case is the latest in a string of incidents that we have witnessed in Egypt and among the Coptic Diaspora of women sacrificing their lives as they succumb to the clergy’s pressures upon them to bear their cross. Another case in Brighton a few years ago involved a very similar scenario: a woman violently killed by her husband had been pressured into returning to her marital home. Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity shared that the local parish (Coptic) priests had pressed the victim to return to her marital home-against her expressed wishes not to return to him—and despite their awareness of his long history of wife-beating. While they did not physically force her, according to the sources, they certainly exerted a lot of pressure, urging her to bear her cross for the children’s sake.
Invisible Women, Invisible Problem
The purpose behind my inquiry here is neither to demonize bishop x or vilify priest y—nor to suggest that every Coptic Orthodox clergy condones domestic violence. Notwithstanding, these are not singular cases but reflect a much deeper, more systemic problem, one that has been shrouded in secrecy. Women suffer in secret, they are advised to bear their crosses by their parish priests in secret, and while families and communities know of the occurrence of wife-beating, it is not a subject that is openly talked about. They are the invisible women whose predicament no one wants to confront as a social ill, not a personal exception. Domestic violence is a global phenomenon. According to the WHO, one in three women (30%) who are in a relationship have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime. More than a third (38%) of acts of murder of women are committed by a male intimate partner. So given its global nature, why cast the light on the tragic end of these two Coptic Orthodox women?
The reasons are three-fold, First, whereas advocates against assaults on women’s bodily integrity in these two contexts (Australia and the United Kingdom) have mobilized to break the silence around spousal violence more broadly, women belonging to such a tiny minority have fallen within the cracks. Spousal violence is shrouded in secrecy in the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest churches in the world, dating back when St Mark the Evangelist visited Alexandria in 48 AD. As a taboo topic, there are no systemic, methodologically robust studies that explore the nature or size of the phenomenon or policies that engage with how to mitigate or address it.
The second reason why we are putting the spotlight on these tragic deaths is that they reflect a broader phenomenon in which in Coptic Orthodox clergy have sometimes been complicit in these women’s exposure to violence. In both incidents, reliable sources confirm that the clergy pressed these women to bear their cross and return to their abusive husbands. Often the drivers are to keep the family intact for the sake of the children or to avoid one spouse asking for a divorce. The clergy in the Coptic Orthodox Church wield enormous power in shaping and informing social norms and practices among the more than 10 million men and women who identify themselves as belonging to the Coptic Orthodox faith. In Egypt, years of living under discrimination and insecurity have meant that Copts regard the church not only as a community of believers or its clergy the source of spiritual guidance but as the safeguard against all kinds of vulnerabilities experienced in broader society. In the Diaspora, those families keen to maintain their identity also look to the church to play a central role. Priests officiate at marriages, funerals, baptisms, and other key milestones in people’s lives. This role is not absolute, of course. Since the Egyptian uprisings of 2011 and 2013, Coptic youth have challenged the absolute authority of the church leadership at several conjunctures. In the diaspora too, opportunities of exposure to other cultures, faiths, ways of living have also meant that it is one of many sources of identity formation and socialization. However, for millions of Copts, the priest is one person of primary recourse in the mediation of private matters. It is therefore likely that other than one’s immediate family, women suffering from domestic violence would seek advice and possibly intervention from their confession father.
The third reason for bringing this to light is that despite the variation in profile of these women and other Coptic women in the diaspora and Egypt, the clergy have professed one common message: this is your cross to bear. Again, interestingly, this is not specific to the Coptic Orthodox faith. Christian women universally have been told to carry their crosses, as in the Russian Orthodox Church, or as in the Catholic church, or as noted by Restored, a Christian alliance whose co-director is a member of the Church of England, or as denounced here by a Greek Orthodox clergy.
Interestingly, we have not heard that men who report unhappiness at home are advised by the clergy to carry their crosses and endure abuse (except perhaps when their wives are about to convert or when one of two spouses wants a divorce).
For some it may seem self-evident that to accept domestic violence in the name of bearing one’s cross is a theological anathema, but this is murky territory: what do we do with clergy who continue to espouse this line, propagating it through their preaching or championing it through their pastoral work? We have to start by a church-wide acknowledgement that domestic violence is not a cross to bear and that blaming the victim is unacceptable. We are far, far away from this first step.
It seems what is asked of these women is not only to bear the crosses but to give up their lives carrying it, and the question is, “For what?” The biblical verse upon which the clergy have appropriated the justification of women’s subjugation to domestic violence is “Take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). One renowned Coptic Christian counsellor, Dr. Nabil Baki, when asked what victims of domestic violence should do when they are told by the church to carry their crosses, emphatically said, “This is a wrong counsel.” He elucidated that sometimes women are made to feel they are responsible for what is happening to them, making them feel guilt and shame, and this leads some women to acquire a negative view of God, as if there were judgment upon them to put up with the beatings in quiet (at 1:1701-29). The truth of the matter is that we can’t ignore theological interpretations of the biblical verse on the cross to bear. The theology of bearing one’s cross is especially prevalent in Orthodox Churches in contexts where there has been a history of persecution for their faith, although it also features in relation to suffering and illness more broadly. Just as Dr. Baki spoke about bearing the cross being wrong guidance, so too we need theological teachings on why the appropriation of “bearing one’s cross” to justify endurance of wife-beating is a misappropriation of Christ’s saying. Theological expositions that differentiate between the kind of suffering that qualifies for bearing the cross for Christ and enduring domestic abuse that Christ would never condone in his name need to be made authoritatively. We need accountable theology. This is an invitation to readers to share such theological expositions so we can make full use of them.
We also need simultaneously to seek multiple avenues to bring about other kinds of accountability—as I will argue in a later essay. We can’t wait until a problem is acknowledged theologically before we seek redress.Too many lives are shattered, or indeed lost, in the meantime.
Mariz Tadros is an Institute of Development Studies Research Fellow at the University of Sussex specializing in the politics and human development of the Middle East.
This essay was supported by the author’s participation as Senior Fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
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