Category Archives: Interfaith marriage in Muslim societies


By Alexandra Kinias

Article published in Kalimat magazine. Click to view

Two years ago Egyptian American director and screenplay writer Hesham Issawi approached me to collaborate in writing a screenplay about a forbidden love affair between a Coptic woman and her Muslim lover. We set gear to work together with the emphasis to expose the hardships the young couple, who lived in the slums of Cairo encountered in their daily lives. The challenges they faced escalated after the girl got pregnant. To salvage their love and have a better future the couple had to leave the country. With Europe as their destination, they made their exit after paying the smugglers to take them by boat to the other shore; thus the movie title ‘Cairo Exit’ was born. The storyline of Cairo Exit was truthful to the lives of millions of unemployed underprivileged young Egyptians who survive in continuous chaotic clutter as they struggle to make ends meet with nothing but ghosts of a bleak future to look forward to.

The poignant journey of exploring the fictional lives of the couple and writing about it was culminated with a joyful crescendo when a producer acknowledged our efforts and stepped on board. The selection of cast and crew commenced and the director of photography Patrik Thelander who flew in from L.A. was already checking the shooting locations. Not before too long the festive climax was transformed into a nightmare. The preparations for shooting froze as the censorship bureau denied approving the screenplay on the basis that the religious faith of the young woman should be changed to Islam. The interfaith relationship between the characters became the major obstacle to produce the movie.

On its journey from birth to screen, Egyptian movies require triple permits before they see the light. The screenplay must first be approved before a shooting permit is issued. Before the movie is shot, the censorship bureau can demand the removal of scenes, tamper with the story or even change the title as happened with Cairo Exit which its initial title was Egypt Exit. Unless producers comply with such requirements, movies will forever remain on paper. Once a movie is shot, a screening permission must be granted. And as a final reminder of who has the upper hand, the bureau reserves the right to revoke the screening permit at any time and for any reason.

Refusing to comply with the requirements to change the faith of the female character, the screenplay Cairo Exit was not approved. In lieu of shooting permits, the movie was shot underground since carrying a film camera on the street of Cairo without a permit is a felony. In spite of the games of hide and seek played between the movie crew and policemen, in civilian clothes roaming the streets, the shooting was completed.

The first censorship law in Egypt was drafted on November 26, 1881 as a reaction to Ahmed Orabi’s revolution against the British occupation. To curb the freedom of press after nationalistic newspapers in support of the revolution flooded the market, control over the media was born. An amendment to the law was made in 1904 that included censorship over movies and theatrical performances. Prior to that date, movies that were screened in Egypt, since 1896, and theatrical performances were under the direct control and discretion of the police chief.

Against the belief of the masses, the censorship bureau was not essentially created to protect family values, but its objective was primary political to safeguard the government and its leaders. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since then. However, with the religious surge in Egypt, those who proclaimed themselves as custodians of morality rode the wave to benefit from the censorship that has assisted them in spreading their ideologies.

To silence the voices and switch off the brains of the people, censorship becomes essential for the existence of totalitarian regimes. With adding a tint of religious and family values to its objectives, no one dares to dispute its motives. It comes as no surprise that movie censorship thrived under the reign of Mubarak’s corrupt regime.

To safeguard moral and family values, countries worldwide have instituted the rating system whose purpose is to alert viewing audiences of the contents which maybe objectionable to some. However, banning movies, to stop people from watching them is a common practice of totalitarian control. It is an insult to assume that people are unable to think for themselves and thus need the guidance from decision makers to tell them what they should watch, or how they should think and behave.

As in other countries, Egypt also has its own inconvenient truths embedded in the society such as female genital mutilation, sex out of wedlock, women who turn to prostitution for a living or interfaith relationships. Banning movies that discuss such issues on the basis that they defame the society is a form of mental manipulation as denial of an existing problem is a delusional approach to solve it. On the contrary such important social issues require people’s awareness rather than wishing them away. Only when addressed, then they may be resolved.

In addition to that, the ban of movies or books resulted in restricting creativity which unfortunately doesn’t come with an operating manual with guidelines to follow. Over the years, censorship has achieved nothing but an overall decline of talents.

It is ironic to see the books that were published in Egypt in the early twentieth century are being banned in the twenty first century. No wonder that when the dispels of the cultural renaissance of the twenties and thirties in Egypt, like Abbas Mahmoud Al- Akkad and Nagub Mahfouz, two of Egypt’s notable writers, took responsibility of the censorship bureau, Egypt’s cinema witnessed its golden age. The set back of the Egyptian movie industry happened with the revolution of 1952 when the industry was nationalized and censorship escalated to protect the revolution.

Today’s censorship officials in Egypt are the sons of the era that witnessed the cultural decline. Their qualifications are not important anymore because the job description nor longer requires creativity and talent, but total submission to the regime’s doctrine. In a conversation with Hesham Issawi about why a movie like Yacoubian Building, would be given a green light, while others with less controversial issues don’t, he stated, “The movie [Yacoubian Building] looked like an antigovernment, but in reality it was very much what dictators do; [they] allow certain films that might look like they are critical of the government, to show they have a free society. But in fact the movie promoted their system.”

In spite of the difficulties Cairo Exit witnessed prior and while the cameras were rolling, and with the ban on screening it is still effective in Egypt, the movie won international recognition. It premiered in Dubai Film festival, won best non-European Film award in the Independent European Film festival, and received positive acknowledgments in the Tribeca festival in NY, Festival Cinema Arabe in The Netherlands and Toronto International Film Festival.

Tribeca Film Festival Movie Review
Festival Cinema Arab
Slant Magazine Movie Review
Toronto International Film festival


Filed under Interfaith marriage in Muslim societies

The Priest’s Wife

By: Alexandra Kinias

It is uncommon that the news of a wife’s disappearance after a family dispute, in a small village in Upper Egypt, becomes a headline in  newspapers,  circulates on international websites,  and triggers the intervention of national security forces — unless the woman is a Priest’s wife.

The unexplained disappearance of Camellia Shehata Zakher, the 25 years old wife of a Coptic Priest in Upper Egypt, immediately ignited the  rumors of abduction and forced conversion to Islam.

After her husband falsely reported her kidnap, he used the powers granted to him by the church to mobilize demonstrations to pressure the government to find her. To curb the dormant sectarian violence volcano from an inevitable eruption, National Security intervened in full force and led a wide investigation to return the woman safely to her husband.

The vanishing of the  young woman escalated the religious tension that is already bubbling under the surface.  Within hours after she was gone, more than 3000 Copts from her home village and the neighboring villages were mobilized to travel to Cairo, in buses, to join the thousand others who were already demonstrating at the Coptic Patriarchate there. They were stopped and detained on their way by state security.

For centuries, Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs where the Holy Family sought refuge, was a land of religious and ethnic tolerance. It was widely known as a safe haven that sheltered and protected its people regardless of their  different religious beliefs.

Today with the soaring numbers of the Neo-Muslims and their preachers who are constantly venting their loath against the others, the religious tolerance is plummeting causing sectarian violent clashes between the Muslims and the Coptic minorities — especially in the south of the country, the heartland of the Copts. Such violence could be triggered by events as trivial as  school kids fighting  over a soccer game or by rumors that with no exception always involve women’s conversion to Islam.

Ibrahim Issa, CEO and Chief Editor of the Egyptian Al Dostur Newspaper wrote :

“There is an obsession among Muslim extremists who believe that converting a Christian to Islam is a victory for Islam and guarantees them a place in heaven……  [and] There is also a great deal of sensitivity among Christians who consider a conversion by a Copt to Islam to be an insult to their religion and a threat to Christianity…..”

But within days, National Security investigations revealed that Camellia left her home willingly after a fight with her husband. She was located at a friend’s house, detained by  National Security forces and escorted back to the husband, against her will, without even considering the reasons of why she left in the first place.  The country’s national security is by far more important than its women’s rights.   Camellia  denied all allegations that she was kidnapped or subjected to attempts to convert her to Islam.  However,  she confessed that she was not planning to return back to her husband who played the sectarian card to bring her back.

Not only was Camellia forced to return back to her husband against her will, in exchange for the country’s security, but to add to the drama of this soap  opera, the president of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights in Cairo, Dr. Naguib Gibrael, sent a request to the Pope Shenouda III to issue a papal order that bans  priests’ wives from seeking employment outside the church. This is a strange request coming from a human rights activist. It raises the question, whose rights does Dr. Naguib represent?

Camellia’s disappearance brought back the memories of Wafaa Constantine’s episode in 2004. Constantine, an unhappy wife of another priest took refuge in a police station in mid-December 2004 and announced that she had converted to Islam. A combination of an unhappy marriage and the church’s ban on divorce seemed to be the reason behind her action. Constantine demanded protection from her co-religionists, who sought to convince her to return to her husband’s side.

Within a few weeks, Pope Shenouda III himself went into seclusion and threatened to stay there until the matter was resolved, even if it meant skipping mass on the January 7 Coptic Christmas. Eventually, the security services came to an accommodation with the church: Shenouda would come out of his retreat and Constantine’s conversion to Islam would be considered null and void (under Egyptian law, conversion from Islam is illegal, but not the reverse). Constantine has since been sequestered in the monastery of Wadi Natroun and has not been heard from, to the alarm of human rights activists who believe she is being held against her will.

As long as the suffering of women continues, Zakher and Constantine’s cases will neither be the first nor the last.  They will always be a reminder of the strict Church laws governing marriage and divorce. Such laws are forcing  thousands of unhappy women and men to live together, against their will, because they don’t have a way out. They also shed a light on the fragile situation of a country that tries to stay stable by involving its security apparatus to resolve family disputes.

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Filed under Interfaith marriage in Muslim societies, Women Rights in Egypt

Interfaith Is Not For The Faithful

By: Alexandra Kinias

Photograph of the twins Mario and Andrew.

Religion plays a dominant role in the lives of people  in the Middle East. It not only controls and dominates them, but it also shapes and guides their everyday lives.  In such societies, interfaith marriages, which are discouraged for some and banned for others is becoming an issue of growing sensitivity. It is a symbol of both gender and religious inequality in a society that is living in a hypocritical harmony, while in reality it is enveloped by a cloud of sectarian tension.   In Egypt, an interfaith relationship, when discovered, may become a source of sectarian violence that often erupts  in this society that’s maintaining its calm on the surface, but its volatile bubbles are brewing underneath.

The religious and gender inequality is demonstrated in several ways. While a Muslim man is allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim man.  Christians and Jews are welcomed to convert to Islam, but it is forbidden for Muslims to convert to Christianity or any other faith. A conversion of a Muslim to another faith would not be acknowledged by the government, and in some cases the converts would expose themselves to death penalty. And if a Muslim husband of a non-Muslim woman dies, she is not entitled to his estate and thus most non-Muslim women convert for financial gains rather than for beliefs.

The dilemma still continues because by law, once a man converts to Islam, his wife and kids automatically become Muslims, even without out their consent.  This religious law that was causing a lot of controversy in Europe,  was finally overruled when a fatwa (religious decree) was declared that a  wife of a convert who lives in Europe can maintain her faith. But Back at home, women were not that lucky.

Because divorce laws for Coptic Egyptians are quite complicated, some men and women often convert to Islam to terminate the marriage, against the approval of the church. Sometimes the stories end there. But when excess baggage is hauled along disasters often occur, as in the case of the twins Mario and Andrew.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, the twins’ Christian parents had an unstable marriage and the father eventually converted to Islam to divorce their mother. According to the laws of the land, the custody of the boys was automatically  granted to the Muslim parent. However, in an unprecedented verdict, the court granted the mother their custody.  But the fifteen years old boys are still fighting to regain back their religion on their legal papers. For five years and after more than forty cases being battled in court, the courts in Egypt are still refusing to grant them their religious identity. It may not be a problem for someone who is living elsewhere, but when religion is still documented on IDs and is a subject taught in schools, the twins who are devout Christians might be facing some future challenges with Islam being forced on them.


Filed under Interfaith marriage in Muslim societies