Pursuing the Right Education: Cultural Constraints on Women and Girls
During the first 17 years of my life, the following three tasks were the focus of my purpose as an Egyptian-Canadian woman growing up in Metro Vancouver: cleaning; cooking; and being a gracious host.
Despite the vast opportunities awarded to me by my parents’ journey from Egypt to Canada, my home life reflected that of a fundamental Coptic Orthodox Christian home in Cairo. When walking into St. George Coptic Church in Surrey, British Columbia, the architecture is strikingly beautiful – walls draped in stained glass pains of Bible Stories and long pews stretch on both sides. The beauty radiating from the room fades when the pews fill – left are the men, right are the women.
Separating men and women in the church, among other forms of segregation, is fundamental to how to Coptic Church conducts its rituals, events, and ceremonies. The existence of Copts in Egypt and globally is minimal – as a result, Copts who flee Egypt’s tense religious environment must provide all necessary resources and opportunities for their children to immerse themselves in the religion. For a minority religion, retaining its members and assuring future generations follow is key to the religion’s existence. Often in the minds of Coptic parents is the urgency to pass their religion on to their kids, which can be understood as courageous and powerful.
This is article is not meant to shame the Coptic Orthodox community’s dedication to sustaining the religion, rather, this article serves to highlight the consequences of importing Egyptian culture into Western countries. Egypt’s political, religious, and social life vastly contrasts that of Metro Vancouver, Canada. Women in Egypt are (mostly) encouraged to educate themselves but with a different outcome: marriage.
Earning a post-secondary education as a woman in Canada is not contested or used as a tool to increase the likelihood of marriage. Education in every sense is to broaden one’s understanding of the world around them and the processes of growth that follow. If desired, there should be no situation in which a woman cannot access education.
As I worked to complete high school and started applying for post-secondary education, I was met with a complicated message from my mother: “if you want something, get a diploma.” From her perspective, it is sufficient to educate me to the extent that it would not interfere with my future marriage. Of course, what use would a degree serve when I must take care of my husband and kids?
When I submitted my first university application, I was met with two incredibly angry parents who would have never expected their daughter to leave home without being under the protection of a man. Even with academic, professional, and personal successes during grade school, the greatest barrier to my future success was my parents – or so I thought.
The most important thing that I have learnt in my journey in pursuing post-secondary education is that purpose and determination comes from within. Those around you that try to diminish your goals will never cease to exist – it is your reaction to them that determines your future. Women who have grown up in conservative and restrictive households are often trained in the stream of cleaning, cooking and being gracious hosts. These are absolutely important to learn over time, but they should not characterize women’s existence. In self-reflection, there is more to being an individual than falling in line and satisfying those around you, especially parents. Women and girls need to be encouraged to pursue higher education, notably in Canada’s increasingly diverse communities including cultures and religions from all continents.
Letting women and girls fall through the cracks is not an option – having resources that enable women to express and empower themselves is a transformative process that has a tremendous impact within communities. When a community fails to reflect women as powerful, strong, resourceful, and capable, everyone in the community suffers.
Monica Bassili is a fourth-year University of Alberta student double majoring in Political Science and Human Geography and Planning. Monica has been active within her community since grade school and has dedicated her work to benefiting the public good. Furthermore, Monica is working towards three certificates: international learning, sustainability, and Indigenous governance and perspectives. In this way, Monica is able to understand systemic issues in depth and develop intercultural communication skills that serve to facilitate projects in and around Edmonton. Monica’s focus is on public service and specifically, developing tools that serve underrepresented communities and individuals in need.