By: Dr. Ashraf Ramelah | Voice of the Copts

In Egypt, Islamic religious differences always remain internal and out of the public eye. That is why the recent mainstream news coverage of Habiba Tarik’s religious “bullying” is so astounding. A university student, she is furious after suffering a public humiliation over a personal, religious decision. Her complaint is receiving a lot of attention across the country. She is irate, which is not kindly regarded. Submission is her proper role. So why is she now allowed to tell her story on national TV?

Egypt is a country ruled silently by Muslim religious decrees. Islamic religious traditions serve to pressure individuals in ways that often turn one believer against another. Habiba wore a modern but modest dress during her final exams at the university, but officials did not approve. Apparently, their personal religious preferences and defense of Islam took priority over their administrative duties – an ordinary ordeal in Egypt. So why the publicity?

Discrimination and coercion are egregious violations of democratic, constitutional principles

In the West, discrimination and coercion are egregious violations of democratic, constitutional principles and condemned as unacceptable.

That is why over the past year we have witnessed horrified citizen journalists around the world pointing out scenes of informal Covid enforcement consisting of misguided citizens (motivated by “virtue,” fear, and misinformation) turning against neighbors for not complying.

However, in a nation where Islamic legalism governs society – dictates public and private affairs – there is no need to call it out. Clashes over levels of religious service and obedience to Sharia are a regular part of life and go on without regard for public institutions or their taxpayers. It is routine and perfectly acceptable.

The conflict involves individuals favoring a more comprehensive and stricter form of worship, others for a more liberal life. Disagreements normally stay between the two. For Habiba to take her plea for fairness to the public through the national state-controlled broadcasts was inconceivable until now. Will her story ultimately be marginalized as a sensational rant and Habiba discredited, and, if so, is it an intentional sacrifice on her part in order to achieve westernization and an end to conformity to Islamic legalism?

On June 22, Habiba Tarik, a student at the public university campus, was harassed by faculty about her attire. Habiba was in her second year-end exams of the Faculty of Arts of Tanta University (93 KM north of Cairo) when observers from the committee of the faculty for the end-year exams “bullied” and “ridiculed” her because her dress was inappropriate for a Muslim woman.

Belligerence between a Muslim official and a Coptic Christian

Habiba argued in a television interview that she was subjected to verbal abuse and insults and inappropriately interfered with her personal affairs. She explained that after finishing her exam she went to collect her ID card, which was previously handed over to officials at the entrance. At this point, her religion was questioned even though her name was obviously Muslim. Her religion was clearly stated on her ID card, leaving her to feel degraded by their mockery.

Her city of residence, Alexandria, was negatively characterized as well, impacting her and her family’s reputation. In her public account, Habiba quoted a female monitor’s comments about her lack of hijab and disrespect for Islam, “Then one woman said to the other, ‘she is from Alexandria, and they are like that in Alexandria.’ Then one addressed me by saying, ‘while you are walking the wind will rise up your dress; I hope Allah guides you and helps you to return and to wear the hijab.’”

At this point, it is worth noting and goes without saying that any belligerence between a Muslim official and a Coptic Christian would not be afforded the same access to public networks as Habiba’s incident received. If so, there would hardly be airtime remaining for news. Institutionalized prejudice against Christians could be in the media daily if government policy were geared toward ending discrimination and addressing human rights.

Finally, there is only one possibility for the reason Habiba’s story made headlines. When wealth or status is involved, power to defend an individual ahead of religion is tolerated in Egyptian Islamic society. Habiba’s father met with the dean to lodge a formal complaint, which indicates his social status within the community.