Opinion

Tackling Sex Education and Sexual Abuse in the Egyptian-Canadian Diaspora

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Tackling Sex Education and Sexual Abuse in the Egyptian-Canadian Diaspora

A rally in 2015 against the sex-education curriculum proposed by the Liberal government in Canada. Credit: Shutterstock / Igor Kisselev

On Monday 9 March 2021, a video of a man assaulting a young girl went viral. The incident occurred in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Maadi. The CCTV footage quickly sparked outrage within Egyptian circles, serving as a reminder of the everyday sexual violence and abuse Egyptian women and girls face.

As a trained pharmacist and community health worker serving immigrant communities in Canada, I have been closely following the many events that affect the lives of Egyptians living in Canada and America. Observing Egyptians abroad and how they interact with events around them is key to building healthier and sustainable communities that add to the mosaic of such plural societies abroad.

Egyptians abroad are not immune to the systemic issues which contribute to the rampant sexual violence in Egyptian communities. Sally Zakhari, an Egyptian-American living in Florida, USA has been battling the Coptic Orthodox Church for almost 17 years since her experience of sexual assault by a priest. On 12 July 2020 she finally went public with her story, forcing Egyptian communities globally to reckon with the fact the abuse can be perpetrated by religious figures like priests.

In both incidents, Egyptian authorities and the Coptic Orthodox Church took swift action, but only after the story went public. The accused Maadi molester, Mohammed Gawdat, has been arrested and is facing criminal trial. The priest who assaulted Sally, Fr. Roweis Aziz Khalil (now Yousef Aziz Khalil), has been defrocked. Arresting, prosecuting, and defrocking abusers are important first steps in response to sexual assault. The question, however, is whether these steps are sufficient to address the systemic problem facing Egyptian communities at home and abroad.

The impact of sex education on sexual violence is one avenue that ought to be explored. The United Nations’ conducted a review on sex education and found that the “evidence is clear”.

“Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) leads to improved sexual and reproductive health, resulting in the reduction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, and unintended pregnancy. It not only promotes gender equality and equitable social norms, but has a positive impact on safer sexual behaviours,” concluded the review.

Dr. Laura McGuire from National Center for Equity and Agency also argues that “the more we talk about sex and agency in the late childhood and teen years, the less likely it is that abusive dynamics will arise—and, if they do, the more likely that self-efficacy and personal advocacy will be present.”

One of the educational posters of the We Give Consent campaign promoting the revamped Sex Ed curriculum in Ontario.

Sex education has been a the subject of controversy in Ontario, which is the most populated province in Canada, and holds one of the highest concentrations of Egyptians outside of Egypt. In December 2014, the Government of Ontario announced new initiatives to raise awareness, enhance prevention, and support victims of sexual violence and harassment. As part of these initiatives, Education Minister Liz Sandals finalized a new health and physical education curriculum targeting young people to teach them about gender inequality, healthy relationships, and consent. This curriculum was referred to as ‘Ontario’s Updated SexEd’. The last time it was updated was in 1998.

These new initiatives were not well received by conservative-leaning communities around the Province, including Christian and Muslim Egyptians. The Canadian Families Alliance, a social media account backed by the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (Ontario PC), mobilized conservative-leaning communities to oppose the new Sex-Ed curriculum.

The primier of Ontario was Kathlen Wyne, a woman who identifies as a lesbian. While it is hard to find a public record of homophobia against Wyne, her sexual orientation was the subject of many private conversations by Copts and others. Some argued that her sexuality was one of the major reasons behind the conservative backlash against SexEd in Ontario.

The Canadian Families Alliance mobilized Christian and Muslim Egyptians, as well as other immigrant communities in Ontario. The Alliance organized a full blown campaign against the proposed curriculum, and even hosted rallies in front of the Ontario Parliament. They also collaborated with HOWA Voice of Parents who sponsored an event for Miriam Grossman, an American psychiatrist, who holds homophobic views which contradict the views of her professional body. This event was attended by more than 1000 parents, predominantly from conservative communities, and it resulted in controversies within these local communities.

The Coptic community and Coptic Orthodox Church were a major player in this debacle. The Church released a statement opposing the curriculum, stating that “the Government of Ontario is attempting to abduct the parenting responsibility from parents and to force a way of thinking on children without regard for Christian beliefs, morals and values.” The Church of The Virgin Mary and Saint Athanasius in Mississauga other religious organizations even offered bus rides to rallies in Downtown Toronto to oppose this new SexEd curriculum.

Such rallies saw the rise of Ghada Melek, an active community mobilizer, and the first Canadian Coptic Egyptian woman to run for municipal and political offices. On her website, Melek promoted transphobia and advocated for conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ folks. These posts resurfaced in 2019, when she ran for the Canadian Federal Parliament Office.

The Coptic Orthodox community also created a counter curriculum to the proposed government curriculum. The Diocese of Mississauga, Vancouver, and Western Canada published a series of books titled, “A Christian Guide to Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum”. Though an enormous amount of work went into the counter-curriculum, the final booklet does not identify the authors. It also does not identify any sex experts either, and the references are predominantly from GotQuestions.org and Wikipedia. GotQuestions.org lacks well-sourced answers, and even state on their website that “we do not believe a formal biblical/theological education is necessary to be able to provide quality answers to spiritually related questions”.

Despite not being a well-resourced document, the counter-curriculum is cited in a Wikipedia article, as well as a published research paper. Given the counter-curriculum circulation, it is the Coptic Orthodox Church’s responsibility to identify the authors of these documents and to re-evaluate the sources used.

There are many problems with the counter-curriculum, and one of them revolves around their problematic characterization of consent. Geared towards children in Grade 6, the curriculum describes consent as follows: “The concept of consent is simply a concept that goes hand in hand with the aforementioned concept of “false freedom.” The world is trying to deceive our children into believing that the say is “theirs” and not anybody else’s (including God). They are deceived that they can choose for themselves what to do and what not to do with their own bodies.”

Condemning consent in such a way is harmful and normalizes abuse within Coptic communities. Considering the story of Sally Zakhari and others who experienced abuse at the hands of clergy, this is especially concerning.

When schools in Ontario started teaching the official updated sex-ed curriculum in the fall of 2015, parents had the option to opt their kids out of the curriculum. When I asked, many Coptic families ended up pulling their kids out of the updated curriculum. That leaves those school aged Egyptian Coptic kids without any guarantee of getting quality sex education at home. As an immigrants community worker, when I ask these parents why they migrated out of Egypt, they would say, “we want a better education for the kids”. This “better education” includes sex education which distinct it from education in Egypt. Some argue that pulling Egyptian kids out of SexEd in Canada equates them with their counterparts in Egypt who do not get adequate sex education.

The Ontario SexEd was one of the main reasons that mobilized Egyptians to vote for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario in 2018. Doug Ford, the party leader, ran on a promise to review and change the updated SexEd. After Ford won against Wayne, they revisited the initiatives, but ended up implementing almost the same curriculum anyway. There was no push back this time, simply because the curriculum was implemented by a conservative government.

Some Coptic Egyptians argue that challenging sex education by Egyptian communities abroad enables what sexual abuse to continue to happen, including by clergy members.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., a family therapist and a researcher at Dalhousie University, writes, “if clergy and parents aren’t going to protect children, doesn’t it make sense that we provide kids with the information they need to protect themselves?”

“The grittier, more complicated facts need a professional educator to be taught correctly. Kids need to know the realities of what consent really means, the truth about oral sex and its consequences, the dangers of internet porn (and how they can be exploited), how paedophiles groom young people for sexual assault, and much more about same-sex relationships than prudish heterosexual parents want to admit their kids have a right to know.”

It’s time for Egyptians, especially outside of the motherland, to move beyond the fear of talking about sexuality and embrace the freedoms they are living. It is time to move beyond our homophobia, transphobia and misogyny, and talk about consent and evidence-based sex education. While arresting or defrocking criminals is a step, it is not the entire solution. Quality sex education is key.

The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected]

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Marcus Zacharia is Coptic Egyptian and a pharmacist by training who works as a community health worker in Canada. Marcus is passionate about all things diaspora and immigrants including building bridges between intersectional communities, languages, race and gender relations and more. He can be reached at @MarcusZachariah.

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