Christian activists are accusing the Coptic Orthodox Church of adopting ultra-conservative mores after a priest criticised the attire of some women attending church services.
The Reverend Daoud Lamei, speaking during mass on April 28 — Coptic Easter — said some women were only interested in inviting men’s attention by wearing revealing clothes.
“It is deplorable that instead of showing God that we respect this religious occasion, we are only interested in inviting people’s attention,” Lamei said.
He criticised women who wore clothes to church that showed too much skin. Those visiting the church, Lamei said, should demonstrate their fear of God. “Nonetheless, those wearing inappropriate clothes prove that they do not fear God,” he added.
He said Christian men who allow their wives to wear revealing clothing would be punished by God, accusing those men of having no authority over their wives, something that in Egypt’s culture denotes weakness.
Lamei’s comments became the centre of debates inside Christian circles on what women should wear when attending church services and whether the Coptic Church was becoming more intrusive.
Almost 90% of Egypt’s more than 10 million Christians follow the Coptic Orthodox Church. The church has angered followers on many occasions, including on issues of marriage and divorce.
The church’s interference in what women should wear is giving fear to Christian activists that it is becoming more restrictive. Some activists said the church wants to impose a specific way of life on its members.
“This is dangerous because the church wants to convince people the way of life it promotes and piety are two faces of the same coin,” said Christian researcher Ishaq Ibrahim. “Judging a woman’s degree of piety by what she wears is perilous.”
Lamei was not the only one to make such comments. Similar statements came from Coptic priests throughout Egypt.
Some priests, especially in Minya province, began a campaign against what they called “inappropriate clothes.” Called the “King’s Daughter,” the campaign encourages Christian women to wear long sleeves and long dresses, especially during the summer.
Like other governorates in central and southern Egypt, Minya is conservative, which is why the campaign is welcomed by many female churchgoers.
Some Christian Orthodox priests outside Egypt also welcomed Lamei’s comments, including the Reverend Anthony Hanna of the Saint Mary and Saint Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Concord, California.
Hanna posted a video on Facebook supporting Lamei, saying that women show off their skin only to provoke men. “Churches are not made for fashion shows,” Hanna said in the video. “We do not ask women to wear a veil but we want to see them wearing appropriate clothes.”
Christians who are against revealing clothing being worn in the church said the campaign against Lamei’s comments was being blown out of proportion. Those churchgoers said the comments were made as part of a church sermon.
“It is very normal for church priests to ask the congregation during sermons to show fear from God,” said Christian liberal thinker Kamal Zakhir. “Priests view members of the congregation as family members or relatives, which is why they advise them on issues that might seem personal to some people.”
Criticism of Lamei’s comments partly boils down to the similarities they have with the culture of Egypt’s Salafists, who call for women to be completely covered, encourage the marriage of underage girls and say that women do not have the right to be in decision-making positions.
The comments alarm Ibrahim and others because, as he said, they justify violations committed against women in society, such as sexual harassment, if they wear revealing clothes.
He accused priests of becoming more conservative. The priests are being influenced by the way the Egyptian society was developing, he said, at least at a specific point when Islamists were in control and tried to radicalise the whole society.
“The priests want to impose restrictions on women and control them,” Ibrahim said. “In doing this, they show that the influence of the Salafists is seeping into the (Christian) church, too.”