In Egypt, love often does not conquer religious differences. Is there a light at the end of this tunnel? Zaina Hassan delves into the truth of interfaith relationships in Egypt.
Many of us have loved and dated people from a different religion, and we’ve had to let them go. No matter how much you may consider yourself a "non-practicing" member of your religion, in Egypt, if you’re dating someone of a different faith, marriage often gets taken off the table; largely due to societal or familial repercussions.
Surely, there must be something that makes you date that person – knowing you have no future with them. There must be something that drags you into that fairytale. Simple as it is the heart doesn’t follow orders, and feelings don’t really conform to what’s theoretically forbidden. You end up convincing yourself that logic is a function of the brain, and love is a function of the heart, and so love isn’t meant to be logical.
Your heart fights your logic, it tugs at your brain and you refuse to take off those rose-colored glasses. You live a fantasy. You enjoy your failing love affair. You hold your breath and jump into the deep end, thinking swimming back to the shore will be easy.
Islam and Christianity are the two primary religions in Egypt, and though within Islam it is permitted for a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, the opposite is forbidden. And though Muslim men often marry non-Egyptian Christian women, the Egyptian Coptic Church does not recognise marriages between Christian women and Muslim men (or vice versa).
We spoke to seven people who shared their experience of dating someone outside their own faith with us and how that impacted the prospect of marriage and here’s what they had to say:
We got to know each other when I was 13; I’m now 23 and we just broke up recently. Obviously, I didn’t know what I was in for back then, and the years just sort of dragged on and I consciously decided to put marriage off my brain. He was 5 years older, and only 2 years ago we started discussing the issue of religion. I think this is when the bickering started because there was some grander form of pent-up frustration and anger and I just took it out on him all the time. I felt very helpless. You can’t push towards progress, there is no progress.
For almost a year we kept breaking up and getting back together because “we have no future, and need to get on with our lives.” I never told my family about it, because they would never allow it and I felt it would cause unnecessary problems at home, and I would’ve continued seeing him without them knowing but it wouldn’t have been so easy. For the sake of maintaining the peace of my relationship with my boyfriend and my family I never told them about anything.
It’s hard to end a relationship when you’re both in love, and when the other person never did you wrong. There were times when I even wished he did me wrong. It felt like being stuck in a modern Romeo and Juliet scenario – except without all the death. It’s a bittersweet experience, because although you understand the dilemma of the situation, you’ve now had a glimpse of what real love feels like. Your relationship has changed your inner workings, it has made you believe in the type of love written about in books and movies. It has taught you to give the whole of yourself to someone, to trust blindly and live for the moment.
I still love her but we knew it was a dead end. I kept getting more attached and I didn’t know what to do. My family is religious and her family is too. Our marriage would never have been accepted by either side; we would likely have both been disowned. It was out of my hands and she’s dreamy and I’m realistic so I had to be the one who broke us up or else it was never going to happen and would destroy our futures and family. We were together for 5 years and never had any major problems, she’s an amazing person.
Disclaimer, I might cry at any point during this interview but I’ll try to hold my tears. I met him at work in 2015. I got attracted to him but I told him I can never get into a relationship with someone not from the same faith because I value my relationship with God so for me it was very personal and not just because of my family, even though of course, they were also a huge factor. The top two rules in my house are don’t do drugs and don’t date a guy who’s not a Christian, so naturally I always had a big guard up.
It always felt like we were together but we weren’t really officially dating. I started spending more time at work because it the only place where I wouldn’t feel guilty for being around him in. I use to pray to God, asking him to make him smaller in my eyes. I was constantly guilty, always praying and fasting and going to church. I drifted away from my parents because I felt I was doing something that upset them. I was able to take a real step back in Ramadan because I felt it was a holy month for him and I had to respect that, and that helped. But I’m still not okay since.
We started out as best friends. With time, we grew closer not knowing where this was heading and at the time - I was 20. All we cared about was where we'll hang out –university – not even bearing in mind where it could go.
Eventually we gradually fell in love and I couldn’t help but wonder what it’d be like marrying the Muslim love of my life. I thought I could, and I thought it would work. I thought of civil marriage or even eloping with him but I guess I was just watching too many movies. The reality was that my family might abandon me if me and him ever wanted to get married. So I never even told them - I was too scared.
While dating we obviously discussed religion. We lived that reality for 4 years, until everyone around me started getting married and my parents started pressuring me to find “the right guy” and I began asking myself, 'what the fuck am I doing?' Being with someone from a different religion is a losing battle. I felt I was being torn between two worlds; my religious family and strict culture, and my endless love for this guy that I just can’t continue without. In our 5th year, we took the hardest decision of our lives. We had to leave each other because I couldn’t give up my family.
She was my sister’s best friend for 10 years then we got together. We were together for 4 years then we got engaged. Religion was never a factor that caused trouble between us and our families were okay with us getting married. My family was okay with it because it's religiously acceptable in Islam for a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, although my mother always warned me of future problems that may arise as a result of our religious differences. Her family were okay with it simply because they weren’t very religious.
But after we broke off our engagement (due to reasons not related to religion) I tried to call her family and make amends but they never answered so it felt like they were just waiting for us to break up.
Honestly, I think when you love someone nothing should ever stop you from being with them; and for anyone who’s on the shore about dating someone from a different religion, there's only one thing I'll say, do your thing and follow your heart.
I could convince my family and friends of my decision because at the end of the day, I’m a guy. Even from a religious perspective it's acceptable because I'm Muslim, and as a man, it's permitted that I marry a Christian woman - because our children will take my religion. I always saw that I wasn’t going to lose anything. But the case was the opposite for her; I’ll take her from her family, friends, and church.
She was a very active Christian - she always enthusiastically volunteered in church community services and such, and it was one thing I loved about her and really respected. So, I felt what will she still have if she loses everything? Me? She’ll only have me. What if I upset her? Of course, I don’t want to upset her but I’m human and I likely will. What if we don't work out? And then she'd have no one. So I had to end it. I couldn't put her in that position of losing everything for me.
He was very decent, something you don’t find very often and very mature, which is also hard to find. It was easy and simple being with him, very effortless – I let go of thinking with my head and decided to follow my heart but after a year and half I sat him down and told him we need to be smart and realistic.
Then I travelled to Paris for a while, and he started dating someone else. I got very upset. When I came back we sort of got back together and he told me he wanted something serious. I told my mom, but she refused to even speak about the issue. The next day we spoke, and all she talked about was the future, legal rights, and what people are going to say and what his parents are going to think of me. I’m agnostic but my mom is a very religious and spiritual Christian. But isn’t religion supposed to bring us together, not tear us apart?
*Names of the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy