By Dr. Carolyn M. Ramzy
Associate Professor, Carleton University

Singing as Coptic Women

Singing in the Coptic Orthodox Church as a woman is… well, complicated.

In official church contexts, Church clerical hierarchy, interpretations of religious scriptures, and Egyptian cultural ideas around modesty emphasize that women’s voices must be embedded within the wider congregation so that you cannot pick out a single female voice. In the most coveted service, the Orthodox liturgy, women are excluded from singing liturgical hymns in any official capacity. While they may sing from the Church pews, sometimes as members of an all-female Ecclesiastical choir standing just a single row behind Church cantors, they cannot lead as soloists. They also cannot stand sing into microphone where their voices will stick out.

Coptic women liturgical participation is framed by the interpretation of several verses in the Bible. In ethnographic work, clerics often refer to St. Paul’s message to Corinthians (14:34) that “women should keep silent in the churches,” as well as the verse: “I do not permit a women to teach or assume authority over a man, she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:13). Teachings by the late Coptic Patriarch Pope Shenouda III (1923 – 2012) have also had a significant impact on gender, sexuality, and women’s participation in the Church. In one of his famous Bible studies meetings in the late 1980s, Pope Shenouda directly addressed the question about women’s solo participation in the Church, this time during Vesper services that take place before the liturgy. Pope Shenouda advised that a women’s “thin” voice is best mixed with the congregation. When the audience fell silent to his response, Pope Shenouda III tried to soften his lesson with a joke, telling women that they had permission to laugh—but again, outside of the Church. The message was clear: woman’s audible modesty was to not sound in the Church at all, or if they must, to do so outside of the Church.
In 2004, the first members of a Coptic women’s ecclesiastical choir smile into the camera after having received their blessings to sing from the local bishop in St. John’s Coptic Orthodox Church of Covina, California. This choir began thanks to the fierce petitioning of young cantor, Mariam Youssef and her mother, Lili. Lili was ahead of her time. As a Texan oil engineer in the 1970s, she loved Coptic liturgical hymns. “I only agreed to marry,” she told her daughter, “if I could sing on my wedding day.” Her efforts, along with Mariam, would inspire a trend as other church communities began their own choirs such as the Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, while others fiercely resisted in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the South United States. Photo courtesy of Mariam Youssef.
Translation from the colloquial Egyptian Arabic: “Someone says, “What’s Your Holiness’s opinion about a lady, around 20 years old, stands in the church during the vespers prayers (sunset prayers) and says the praise with the deacons?” …
Do you mean that she says a part and the deacons reply with the next part? A female voice and a male voice? This is a shame. This church needs a tough priest who brings this girl down and tells her, “go sit there.” Directly. This is not good.

If we allow girls to sing with boys in certain activities outside the church, we cannot have inside the church, and during the prayers and its traditions, a girl talks with her high-pitched feminine voice and a boy with his deep voice.

They say, “Women should remain silent in the churches.” Remaining silent doesn’t mean not laughing, but they can laugh outside churches. Look, the Bible is the best thing for us to show us the truth. What does the Bible say? In 2 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” We allow her to sing in the church along with other people because the voices are mixed together. But standing in the chorus and hearing her voice alone?! She might say that she will wear a Tonia (deacons’ clothing)! If this church is known for carelessness, it will allow her to do so.”
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