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Heated debate in Egypt after Christian women are told to cover up

Father Daoud Lamei, lambasted Christian women for attire that he deemed immodest.

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Coptic Christians take part in an Orthodox Christmas mass at the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral, in Cairo, Egypt

A Coptic priest’s comments about women’s clothing being too revealing in churches has sparked a heated debate this week among Egyptian Christians, the largest religious minority in the Middle East.

Father Daoud Lamei, a well-known parish priest in an upmarket Cairo suburb with a sizeable social media following, lambasted Christian women for attire that he deemed immodest.

“Why are girls and women even coming to church if they’re wearing revealing and inappropriate clothes?” he said in a widely-shared video.

“She who does, will be judged,” he added. “I personally think any man, who agrees to his wife leaving her home in that way, will be judged before God.”

Lamei made the comments in an April 30 sermon marking Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated by Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.

“At least during Christmas we don’t have to worry about racy clothes because it’s cold… we want it to be cold always,” joked the popular priest.

Coptic Christians make up around 12 percent of the conservative country’s population of 100 million, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Lamei’s remarks sparked a mixed response from women in Egypt, with some criticising his stringent tone while others praised the priest for giving worshippers guidelines.

“He is condemning these women… instead of explaining the appropriate dress code and attitude in church in general — for everyone,” said Sandra Awad, a 22-year-old student who has attended Lamei’s church in the past.

But another woman, writing on Facebook, said the priest “spoke with complete respect… so they can wake up and revere the church they’re entering.”

‘Cover up’ campaign

The debate comes in the wake of a controversial online campaign calling on Christian women to “cover up, so we people can pray”.

A parallel drive urging Egyptian women to cover up for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, also appeared this week with users drawing similarities between the two in the sexist language employed.

Lamei has denied on social media that he endorsed any online drives and did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment.

St Mark’s Church in the Heliopolis district, where he delivered the sermon, on May 6 published a link on its Facebook page to the full Easter speech.

The Coptic Church has become increasingly political under the leadership of Pope Tawadros II, an enthusiastic supporter of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. 

It has also taken on a more active role as the sole representative for Copts in public life as a discriminated minority.

“The clergy are role models for the community who see them as the guardians of their community, its traditions and its faith,” said Elizabeth Monier, an expert on Coptic affairs at the University of Cambridge.

“This is strongly the case when a community feels that it is under threat,” she told AFP.

The Coptic community has suffered a number of deadly attacks on its churches in recent years, while Egyptian authorities routinely turn a blind eye to sectarian violence involving forced evictions or the shutting down of churches.

“Perceived attacks on Coptic traditions or teachings are likely to lead Copts to rally around their clergy and uphold traditions more strongly,” said Monier.

‘Justify harassment’

A group of worshippers at a church in Upper Egypt started an online campaign last week urging fellow young women to dress modestly, which was vehemently criticised by Facebook users for its conservative language. 

Marianne Sedhom, 28, a lawyer in Alexandria who took issue with Lamei’s sermon, told AFP “women in the church need to speak up more against retrograde and male-centric ideas”.

Egypt is one of the worst offenders worldwide for sexual harassment — endured by more than 99 percent of women in the county according to a 2013 United Nations report.

The priest’s remarks were dubbed “Christian Salafism” by Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in reference to the dogmatic school of Sunni Islam.

Ibrahim regarded such rhetoric as hardening attitudes that “justify harassment” towards women.

“There’s a crisis in clerical education so clergy end up tying piety to modesty,” he said.

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These lessons in love and marriage may curb divorce in Egypt

Islam allows men to end their marriages verbally, only by telling their wives they are divorcing them.

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During a recent class at Cairo University, students laughed as they watched a skit acted out by their peers about a married couple. The husband came home from work and asked his wife, who was sweeping the floor, why dinner wasn’t ready. 

“I pick up the kids and I go to work … Am I neglecting something because the food is still on the stove?” the wife asked, to which the husband responded: “The apartment looks like a rubbish dump.” 

The skit was part of a new government project called Mawadda, which offers lessons to university students about how to pick the right partner and how to handle conflicts in marriage. The goal is to prevent divorce after the number of divorces reached more than 198,000 in 2017, a 3.2% increase from the year before.

Mawadda, meaning affection, is still in a trial phase, but the goal is to target 800,000 young people yearly starting 2020 and to eventually make it mandatory for university students to take a class before graduating. 

After watching the skit, some students and the teacher pointed out that the husband should carry out more household tasks. 

“It’s not her obligation to do all that,” said Salah Ahmed, the teacher, adding that the Prophet Mohammad helped his wife with all tasks and his example should be followed.

But he also said the wife should have been more understanding and tried to look good for her husband instead of welcoming him while sweeping the floor.

Julia Gosef, a 23-year-old student who attended the class with her fiance, said she worries that Egypt’s economic hardships could harm her marriage. The couple will not be able to rely on one income so she would be forced to work, which could lead to arguments similar to the one in the skit, she said.

“I think I won’t be able to take care of our home well enough,” she said. 

Mawadda’s lessons will be accompanied by YouTube videos, a radio program and educational plays. The church and Egypt’s top Sunni Muslim authority, Al-Azhar, are partners.

“If we want to solve the problem from the root we need to target people before they get married,” said Amr Othman, manager of Mawadda at the Social Solidarity Ministry. He added that there’s a correlation in Egypt between divorce and problems such as child homelessness and drug addiction.

At a youth conference in July, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said divorce and separation meant that millions of Egyptian children were living without one of their parents.

Islam allows men to end their marriages verbally, only by telling their wives they are divorcing them. Sisi has said he wants to see an end to this practice in Egypt because the divorce rate is too high. The Mawadda project was launched in response to Sisi’s concerns, officials said. 

It typifies some of Sisi’s efforts to drive social change.

“He is patriarchal and speaks to Egyptians as if he was their father,” Barak Barfi, research fellow at New America, a think tank based in Washington, said of Sisi. “It (Mawadda) reflects his belief that transformation can be instituted from the top rather than from below at the grass roots level.”

Adhab al-Hosseiny, 26, who played the role of the husband in the skit, said he hoped to get married in the near future.

He also worries financial difficulties might lead to arguments between him and his future wife. 

“What might cause problems after I marry is external pressure,” he said. “If there are money issues in terms of affording school fees and food… all that affects my mental state.”

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Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons

Several years of unrest have continued within the country, but this did not deter the resilient spirit of these Congolese stars.

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Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons

The Democratic Republic of Congo was born on 17 May 1997 after Mobutu Sese Seko fled what was then called Zaire, and the nation was taken over by the government of Laurent Kabila and renamed.

Several years of unrest continued within the country, but this did not deter the resilient spirit of Congolese citizens from going on to make global contributions in their respective fields.

These are some of Congo’s proudest exports.

1. Dikembe Mutombo

Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons

A historic and globally celebrated basketball player, Mutombo made his mark as one of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) most talented players.

An 8-time all-star player who has played for several star teams in the league, and holds the second highest defensive record to date, Mutombo has become more well known for his humanitarian work since his retirement in 2009.

His foundation, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation works to alleviate the living conditions of the less privileged in Congo.

In 2007, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation completed and opened the doors to one of its major projects thus far, a $29 million, ultra modern, 300 bed hospital on the outskirts of Kinshasa.

Mutombo still works with NBA to groom and scout young basketball talents from across Africa through the Basketball Without Boarders program.

2. Dr. Denis Mukwege

Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons

Dr. Denis Mukwege is a world-renowned gynaecologist, human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate from east Congo. He has become the world’s leading specialist in the treatment of wartime sexual violence, and a global campaigner against the use of rape as a weapon of war.

The son of a pastor, he knew he would be a doctor at the age of 8 after accompanying his father to go and pray for a young, terminally ill boy. He told his father, “You can pray, but I will give medicine”.

In 1999, he founded the Panzi Hospital and Foundation on the outskirts of Bukavu. He soon became a specialist in dealing with cases of wartime rape, as thousands came to the hospital seeking refuge from the war in DR Congo at the time.

It was his work fighting against rape as a weapon of war that set him aside for the special recognition that was the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018.

3. Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya

Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons: Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya

A champion of peace, dialogue and human rights, Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya is a prelate of the Catholic Church who was the Archbishop of Kinshasa from 2007 to 2018.

He became increasingly vocal against former President Joseph Kabila when he disagreed with the results of the 2011 Election saying the results “do not conform either to truth or to justice”.

Towards the end of his tenure, he stood up against the use of violence by the government towards protesters, and called on President Joseph Kabila to respect term limits.

4. Laetitia Kandolo

Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons: Laetitia Kandolo

Laetitia Kondolo has built a power brand for herself as a creative director and stylist in global fashion, having worked with clients such as Madonna, Rihanna, Jay Z and has been on tour with the Black Eyed Peas.

Having studied at the Fashion School of Paris, she launched her first menswear line in 2016. She named the clothing line Uchawi, a Kiswahili name which etymologically means magic.

For her, Uchawi is “a state of mind in which magic exists, magic operates and the impossible dies.”

As part of her commitment to insure that her work added value to her nation, Kondolo partnered with the Congolese styling school ISAM ((Insitut Superieur des Arts et Metiers), to co-produce the clothing brand. In a country plagued with a difficult history and infrastructural issues, job opportunities can be difficult to come by.

Hence her mission to help develop the local textile-making industry, empower women through employment chances, as well as grow a sense of pride for products made locally.

5. Fally Ipupa

Congo’s changemakers at 22: Celebrating DRC’s icons: Fally Ipupa

Singer, songwriter, dancer and philanthropist, Fally Ipupa is a multiple award-winning entertainment icon in Africa and beyond. From singing in his local church choir at a young age, he was later identified by legendary Congolese artist, Koffi Olomide, and started his journey in entertainment as a part of Olomide’s group ‘Quartier Latin International”.

He has been recognized with awards by MTV, BET, KORA Awards and AFRIMMA to name a few.

With over 2 million followers across his social media platforms, Fally Ipapa is a dynamic voice and influencer representing the young people of DR Congo today.

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In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds

The musical genre may be unusual in this part of the world but people understand it

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In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds

The cheering crowd in southwestern Nigeria is thousands strong but when the performer on stage in a yellow catsuit and glittering cape beats out eerie rhythms on a steel drum, they hush.

Then as Helen Epega begins to sing, her powerful voice filling the air at the outdoor auditorium, the crowd roars.

The musical genre may be unusual in this part of the world but people understand it — Epega is singing what she and organisers of the festival in which she is participating say is the world’s first opera in Pidgin.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, with many ethnic groups and hundreds of languages.

But Nigerian Pidgin — a lingua franca sometimes referred to as  “Broken English” — is understood by almost all.

“The reaction has been overwhelming,” said 37-year old Epega, who performs under the stage name The Venus Bushfires and comes from the southern Nigerian city of Benin.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega, performs during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, during the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

“People are really excited about it,” she told AFP. “Perhaps it is because they feel they haven’t had a voice, or had a chance to express themselves in this way.”

Written by Epega herself, the opera has yet to be staged in its entirety but it will involve several singers and an orchestra. 

But she has performed long excerpts with various drums and guitar, in Europe, Cape Town and Lagos, among other places.

And as Epega performed at the recent African Drum Festival in the southwestern city of Abeokuta, the audience danced along, breaking with tradition for an opera.

Titled “Song Queen”, it is about a warrior queen and people who “sing a peaceful reality into the world” through music, she said.

The crowd loved it.

Bridging cultures

The use of Pidgin, which is understood across Nigeria, provides unaccustomed access to opera.

“It is not the music I think of when you talk of African drumming,” said student David Ikeolu at the festival. 

“But she is singing our language, and that is special to hear,” he added.

More than just serving as a lingua franca, Pidgin can also help to bring people together, Epega said.

“It shows that it is not only OK to break barriers — in fact, we must,” said the singer, who has also lived in Britain.

“If we are going to have a dialogue about unity and peace and love, we must find ways to build bridges between ourselves.”

Pidgin power

Pidgin, which is endlessly changing, was once scorned by some as a language of the street.

But it has a powerful and growing cultural influence across all classes.

The BBC has started a Pidgin radio and news website, stand-up comedians are entertaining packed audiences and novels are being written in the language, noted Nigerian author Richard Ali.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega (R), flanked by her husband and manager Baba Jallah Epega, arrives to perform during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, at the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

He said he had recently helped translate an 11th-century Arabic story of Al-Hariri of Basra into Pidgin.

“Adaptable, jazz-like and subversive,” the writer said of Pidgin in a recent article.

Ali also praised Pidgin as a bridge-building tongue that enables even rival groups who cannot understand each other to speak to one another and laugh, turning “competitors into comrades”.

‘Afro-futuristic’

With her hair in long tresses dramatically looped up in curls around a horizontal baton, Epega beats out rhythms on a “Hang”, a Swiss-made percussion instrument.

Two steel shells, one upon the other, resonate when she taps the Hang with her palms, creating a ghostly sound like that produced by Caribbean steel pan drums.

Like Nigeria’s forever changing Afro-pop music, Epega’s sound fuses very different musical styles together for something she describes as “Afro-futuristic”. 

It is a mix of old and new, bringing together “a blend of the rich African tradition of storytelling, using Nigerian Pidgin English, with Western classical opera,” she said.

In Nigeria, pidgin opera is bridging cultures and breaking grounds
Nigerian opera singer and performance artist Helen Epega, performs during the world’s first opera in Pidgin, popularly called “broken English”, during the African Drum Festival in Abeokuta, Ogun State in southwestern Nigeria, on April 25, 2019. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

Epega’s inspirations — from Nigeria’s late Afro-beat icon Fela Kuti to British singer Kate Bush and Mozart — reflect her upbringing in both Nigeria and Britain.

“I think I’m finding a way to marry them all together,” she said, grinning.

Unity in diversity

Celebrating the strength of unity in diversity was another key theme of the festival.

Wole Soyinka, the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who comes from Abeokuta, acted as an advisor to its organisers.

“When you watch a performance of drumming, you are listening to poetry too,” Soyinka said, addressing the opening ceremony.

“If you listen to a recital, it is all about rhythm.”

For Epega, mixing the beat of traditional drums with the sounds and rhythms of modern instruments conveys a powerful message about inclusion.

“I’m saying that no matter where you’re coming from, and where you are on the musical, cultural and social spectrum, I believe we all meet when we speak the same language,” she said: “Music”.

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