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


When you google Coptic music, there’s a good chance you will first run into the Wikipedia definition: “Coptic music is the music sung and played in the Coptic Orthodox Church (Church of Egypt).” For the more refined inquisitor, the search for Coptic liturgical hymns known as alḥān, many times by their specific titles or the names of favorite cantors, yields a plethora of rich, grassroots archives, carefully crafted by dedicated cantors in Egypt and around the world:,,, and These archives also don’t count the numerous YouTube channels, virtual lessons, Coptic shows on satellite streaming TV, as well as apps like Coptic Hymns, Coptic Reader, and iAlhan that cantors can now download directly to their devices. In the Covid-19 era, and well before then, many local churches also streamed their own services, archiving them on their own YouTube Channels. Alongside the voices and faces of everyday cantors, many of these hymn sites also revive the voices of some of the most venerated and beloved mu’allimīn, traditionally blind gatekeepers who have transmitted liturgical hymns through the generations in Egypt, and through these virtual spaces, abroad. Their voices, emerging from scratchy and digitized recordings, remind us that grassroots archiving of Coptic hymns have been with us far longer than the Internet.

But, like that Wikipedia entry that offers a passive definition of Coptic music, without indicating who exactly is singing and playing, these virtual archives implicitly offer a gendered understanding of who does the doing of Coptic music in the Orthodox Church. Almost all recordings of Coptic liturgical hymns in these archives feature male cantors, priests, all-male choirs, and male teachers, revealing a liturgical exclusion of women’s singing and teaching voices, especially in official and leadership contexts.

The thing is, Coptic women sing too. Coptic Women regularly participate in congregational liturgical singing, sounding from their spaces in largely segregated pews to echo the deacons upfront and behind the microphone. Outside of liturgical contexts, women often lead the singing in community choirs and religious educational singing such as in Sunday School classrooms and related educational videos. In the first private Coptic Christian schools in the Diocese of the Southern United States, women also take on leadership roles in teaching the Coptic language, and even teach some Coptic hymns despite not being able to do so in official Church contexts. Just take a listen to the videos here.

Through social media stories, posts, and sound examples, this exhibit illustrate how Coptic women are experts of Coptic liturgical hymns and spiritual songs too. Some have initiated a Facebook page petitioning the Church to allow woman to actively participate during liturgical services, pointing to the position of deaconesses in the Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Churches as evidence of their shared history. Others initiated a YouTube channel to record themselves singing and teaching their favorite hymns. In growing missionary and intercultural Orthodox Churches, spaces that target new converts and provide English-only services, some women have even worshiped through private and shared Whatsapp or Zoom groups to bypass liturgical restrictions.

Finally, some Coptic singing women even engage in a strategy their community have long used to navigate systemic religious discrimination in Egypt: they leave. Or they withdraw to create their own virtual singing spaces, what Jennifer Brinkerhoff called “digital diasporas” that allow them to reinvent and examine their own gendered identities as Coptic singing women in the North American diaspora. And, while not all women choose to part with the Church, many are increasingly vocal about the gender reckoning that is now challenging the Orthodox institution, and using social media, challenge how Coptic women traditionally have belonged in their own communities.
A Coptic woman takes advantage of the quietude of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church of Washington D.C. Despite the empty church, she still sits on the right side, a space designated, and in many churches, segregated for women. Photograph taken by the author.
A teacher at the Saint Clement Coptic Orthodox Christian Academy uses the familiar hymn from the Psalmody called “Aripsalin” to teach young students the Coptic alphabet and numbers in a creative and innovative way. Copts often credit female figures such as their mothers, Sunday school teachers, and spiritual volunteers as their first teachers of Coptic Orthodox hymns.
The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States is deeply invested in an Coptic liturgical revival and religious education. Following the first Coptic school on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, the Southern diocese established the first Coptic School in the U.S., where it is predominantly staffed by Coptic women. The Coptic Youth satellite channel (CYC), the Church’s first English-language satellite channel, details student experiences here.
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