Bring Back our Coptic Girls

Coptic Kidnapping

Seeking commonality with the outrage over the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram, Ebram Louis and the Association of Victims of Abductions and Enforced Disapperances (AVAED) is launching a hashtag of his own. #BringBackOurCopticGirlsEgypt.

I might advise to remove the ‘Egypt’ from the hashtag, thinking ‘Coptic’ builds sufficiently on the now viral #BringBackOurGirls. But Ebram is a dedicated advocate and researcher, and the issue of kidnapped Coptic women is longstanding.

Here I share some recent reflections on the issue, from an article in Arab West Report, excerpting my reflection on the difficulty of this research:

One of the greatest horrors that can befall a family is the sudden disappearance of their child. No country in the world could doubt such tragedy. Why then does controversy surround Coptic minors?

There are two prominent reasons, and both relate to the contested sectarian nature of Egyptian society. While Muslims and Christians live side by side as neighbors, colleagues, and often friends, there is an undercurrent of tension among many, stemming from religious identity. During a moment of crisis or a community dispute, sides can be drawn along religious lines.

Many Christians harbor suspicions that the Islam in a Muslim will push an otherwise friendly neighbor to discrimination, or worse. Many Muslims harbor criticisms that Christians are actually treated better than the average Muslim in society, yet complain constantly. While this tension is generally unspoken a disappearance can shatter the peace.

The first reason is due to an often heard accusation: The girl was kidnapped, with blame assigned to extremist Salafi Muslims. Salafis are understood to be very traditional, and though not necessarily anti-Coptic in essence, often hold a viewpoint assigning non-Muslims a secondary status as if in the historical Islamic caliphate. They also believe in early marriage for women, often below the Egyptian legal age of consent of eighteen. Combining these two characteristics it is posited that some Salafis will kidnap Coptic minors and convert them to Islam to weaken their community, and then marry them off within the Muslim fold.

Setting aside for now the legitimacy of this accusation, it is easy to comprehend its inflammatory nature within a sectarian-laced society. Muslims would be horrified to imagine that such a crime is committed, but furthermore, that it is committed on a religious rationale. But at the same time the alleged crime touches the nerve points of Coptic consciousness, molded over centuries of living within that historical secondary status. Raising the accusation offends Muslims, denying it embitters Christians.

The second reason is due to the social setting surrounding the accusation of kidnapping. Much of Egypt maintains a patriarchal attachment to women, attaching their purity to the family or community’s status of honor and shame. If a woman loses her virginity outside of marriage the offense is felt by the community. A woman who disappears puts their honor at risk, no matter the reason for her absence.

This charged setting is amplified if the suspected disappearance crosses religious lines, in any direction. But first imagine the situation is not one of forced disappearance, but simply of individual choice. The decision of a female to attach herself in relationship outside of family approval is a scandal; it is even greater if the relationship is with a man of a different religion. The reasons can be many and are essentially human: Often they are of love, money, or the desire to escape a difficult home situation. The temptation can therefore be very strong for a family to defend its damaged honor by claiming their daughter has been kidnapped.

These two reasons help explain the controversy, but there is a third factor that may or may not be equally sectarian. The Egyptian state, especially outside of the major population centers, is notoriously weak. Police investigations are often feeble, and the judicial system takes years to process a case. Community transgressions are often left to be solved by the community – with security looking on – and if the crime takes place across religious lines the two sides are encouraged-cum-compelled to ‘reconcile’.

What is more difficult to say is if there is an additional sectarian aspect in police conduct. Christians often accuse security of paying even less attention to crimes against their community. In cases of disappearance of minors, sometimes they fail to investigate at all. Is this due to individual fanaticism, institutional bias, or simply a common indifference?

But the end result for many families is they may have no idea if their daughter was kidnapped or not. She is simply gone. It could be she ran away from home to join her boyfriend. It could be she ran away, but then is met with a host of barriers denying her ability to return. Among these, it is claimed, is the pressure placed on her by the Muslim family, implying the horrors of what will happen to her if she goes back, having violated her family’s honor. Whatever violence she might face, she knows the shame she brought them.

Or, perhaps she was outright kidnapped. Especially following the revolution kidnapping has become a potentially lucrative career given the security vacuum. But if the police do not give due diligence to the cries of a distraught family, what conclusions can they draw? Even if she wishes to marry freely, even if she wishes to convert to Islam freely, the law prohibits these actions until she is eighteen. As a minor, she must be returned to her family. Very often, the law fails.

And also the fact that in a country of more than 85 million people, any one person’s individual problem is drowned in a sea of difficulty and inequity. In order to get the attention of authorities, one must yell louder than everyone else. ‘Kidnapping’ makes for a very loud scream.

Given all the above, this is why proper research into a disappearance is essential. Without it, not only can religious and social taboos be violated, but far worse, the girl may never return home.

But when research must take place independent of the properly invested authorities, it also acquires an air of advocacy. But what can be more appropriate? The task is to put right a wrong, not study sociology.

As such, Ebram Louis is both a researcher and an activist.

The rest of the article profiles his work through the Association for Victims of Abductions and Forced Disappearances. I have written about him earlier, and you can additionally click here for more information.

Ebram Louis

Ebram Louis

But the article closes with his idea for solving the issue. One of his colleagues proposed going through the newly formed Ministry of Transitional Justice, to right past wrongs. Louis, however, wishes to resurrect an old practice:

One possible solution can help sort through the vagary, and is endorsed thoroughly by AVAED. In 2004 in a case similar to that of Camīliah Shihātah, Wafā’ Constantine, another wife of a priest, sparked rumors and demonstrations when she disappeared. Eventually she was returned to the church, but the antagonism that developed between the church and security led to canceling the then-mandatory ‘counseling sessions’ for anyone wishing to convert to Islam.

These sessions were instituted in order to make certain that anyone expressing interest in Islam did so from their full and free will. The would-be convert would meet with a priest under supervision of security, and express his or her desire. The priest had the opportunity to counsel the individual back to the faith, and the presence of security ostensibly ensured an atmosphere of non-coercion.

Reinstituting these counseling sessions would not eliminate the problem of disappearances, but it would carve out space to explore the argument that these young Coptic women are converting to Islam freely. Of course, this only applies when they are of age; otherwise, the law must rule and return all minors to their families. But in the controversial cases where an initial love relationship becomes complicated, a formal procedure to evaluate and process a conversion to Islam would remove much ambiguity from the controversy of disappearances.

Of course, rule of law and freedom of religion are much more basic solutions, but given the nature of Egyptian reality, they are unfortunately not simple solutions. Except for the basic fact that families do not know where their children are, little about this issue is simple.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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