Cultural conflicts in courting: Egyptian-Coptic relationships in the West

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Andrew George explores the potential conflict that an Australian of Egyptian-Coptic descent is exposed to when courting.

One of the most challenging aspects of life as the son of an Egyptian immigrant living in a Western country is the ongoing difficulty attempting to traverse the difficult terrain caused by exposure to different cultures that are at times incompatible with one another. The Egyptian culture is a culture that, to use a classification from a prominent text on morality – the Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, has a moral code based on the ethics of community and divinity. This is in contrast to Western culture that is based on individualism; that is, a value-based system built on the ethics of autonomy.

The conflict that an Australian of Egyptian descent is exposed to emerges where practices and attitudes in Western society, which are acceptable and inevitable in a society that seeks only to restrict autonomy to the extent that it could cause undue harm to others, is incompatible with a culture that has conservative values that emanate from an understanding of what is right and proper because of community tradition and divine instruction. This is manifested in numerous ways, but a clear example is in the context of dating/relationships.

There are a lot of single Coptic men and women in Western society that are hamstrung by a compulsion to observe community tradition and divine instruction. They have not been in a relationship or are struggling to find the right person because they have strong convictions to adhere to values from their ancestral homeland. Those convictions have reduced the pool of available potential partners in a society where it is the norm for a person to have been involved in intimate relationships with other people. In Australia, a society which values individual autonomy, there is nothing untoward in a person dating numerous potential partners with a desire to see if they are compatible with each other on a personal and physical level. People may get hurt in the process and experience debilitating break-ups or demoralizing rejections. But there is no straight path to finding a compatible partner. These experiences are just part and parcel of trying to find the right one.

On the other hand, what is common and acceptable in the West is frowned upon in the East, and this is because it is considered to be in breach of community norms and religious instructions. This is particularly pertinent to Coptic women. It is an unfortunate fact that Coptic men and women are treated differently. Coptic men in Australia have been in intimate relationships or have played the field and, from my experience, no one bats an eyelid. Coptic women are however expected to remain chaste and are considered less desirable if they are not. This is so even though the biblical edicts concerning the prohibition on sexual immorality apply equally to men and women. Families are more likely to scrutinize the actions of their daughters than their sons. To be clear, I am not suggesting that men and women are on an equal footing in Western society. How a sexually liberal person is perceived or viewed in the West does in some respect depend on their gender. But, to put it bluntly, it not uncommon for intimate relationships to occur outside of marriage.

This tension inevitably creates a conundrum. Putting aside those who are for all intents and purposes, Westernized, Coptic men and women are left with a problem where there is a small pool of potential partners because of the enduring cultural differences between Copts and non-Copts in the West. While I am aware of successful interracial relationships, I am also aware of unsuccessful interracial relationships. The success or failure of those relationships depends on a range of factors but it is essential that there is a degree of commonality of values, and that each party is willing to compromise on their values where there is a clash between cultures. Usually people willing to experiment with long-term interracial relationships are likely to be more educated. But in contrast to the liberal Australian culture, Coptic culture is a traditional culture and educated people (those more inclined to consider interracial relationships) tend to be more socially progressive. This augments the difficulty of finding someone outside of the Coptic faith because Coptic values may be off-putting to non-Coptic women brought up in Australia. I have no doubt Coptic men and women in Australia have been interested in non Coptic partners but, because of a divergence of values and perspectives with their prospective or actual partner, found the road to a relationship far too difficult and have resigned themselves to pick someone from within their community. The regrettable fact is that, unlike in Egypt, there are not that many Copts in Australia. The possibility of settling for someone increases in such a paradigm, which is problematic.

Accordingly, it is not implausible to posit that our values, steeped in community tradition and religion, have the potential to be a disabling, rather than constructive, force. Individuals with no religious or cultural inhibitions are more likely to be experienced in relationships and make informed decisions about their future long-term partner based on pragmatic considerations. On the other hand, Copts that adhere to traditional values enter into long term relationships based merely on a hope that certain things fundamental to a successful relationship would work out, particularly if they are inexperienced in dating and relationships. Moreover, can two people truly make an assessment that they love someone to the extent that they wish to spend the rest of their lives with them in an environment which is not conducive to long-term relationships before marriage and where people are driven to marry to meet familial and cultural expectations? Some couples are fortunate in that regard and can click in a relatively short period of time. But to make an informed assessment ordinarily requires time and exposure to that person. This can be impractical, particularly if the person is advanced in their years.

It is true that couples do end up separating or divorcing in Australia and that the divorce rate remains low in the Coptic community. But given the stigma associated with divorce among the Coptic community and the biblical prohibition on divorce except in certain prescribed instances, it is difficult to ascertain what marriages continue because it is based on two people who really love and respect each other and what marriages continue because of considerations such as reputation and convenience. Hence, one should be cautious to engage in the syllogistic reasoning that because Coptic divorce rates are low vis-à-vis non Copts that the way Copts approach finding the right partner is preferable to that undertaken by non Copts.

A shift in attitudes may be needed in order to facilitate interactions between people that evolve in long-term fruitful relationships. It is incongruous to view an engagement as signifying a period where people are getting to know each other when in Australia it signifies that the people are ready to marry. Yet there are people in the Coptic community who have gone through multiple engagements. It is bizarre when two people are surreptitiously seeing each other because they do not want to be seen as being in a “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, but this happens. And people are more likely to engage in the behaviour that is contrary to the faith if they keep their relationship secret. There may be aspects of Western culture that conflict with traditional Egyptian culture, but this is a corollary of moving into a Western nation and it is important that we learn to adapt, so long as the fundamental tenets of the faith are not compromised.

Andrew George

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