Interview with Mirna Wasef: Copticity Beyond Orthodoxy

How did you get started in the discipline of history? What drew you to your research topic?

Early in my graduate career, I heard a story about an Africanist who consistently published a book a year. Although scholars marveled at his amazing achievement, producing new material in such a short amount of time, his response was: I had to. He felt a need to tell the stories of his communities. It is this drive to write my marginalized groups into modern histories of Egypt that similarly motivates my work.

I come from a mixed family of both Orthodox and Protestant Copts. I celebrated two Christmases, two Easters, and personally encountered how these Coptic communities varied. In visiting my Orthodox grandmother every year, I remember seeing iconography adorning the walls of her Alexandria apartment. It was both familiar and foreign to me—I could recognize the images but did not know what they symbolized. Protestant homes do not have the same pictures. As she shared the chronicles of the saints on her calendars and walls, she expressed deep reverence for Orthodox traditions. I saw this observance of tradition in the services, with elements such as lighting candles, music with cymbals and triangles, and a distinct liturgy. Clear hierarchy in spiritual leadership, and congregational responses to these structured elements, reflected centuries of understood tradition. Coptic Protestant services, on the other hand, were not structured in one uniform way. Each church varied somewhat depending on locale, leadership and the community. Sometimes, I entered a Coptic Protestant church to find loud music, drums, electric guitars and a worship band filling a large stage. In other churches, I found the congregation singing acapella, with men and women sitting on opposite sides of the church.

I was fascinated by the points of convergence and divergence between these two communities. Seeing different ways of experiencing Coptic identity molded my questions of what being a Copt entails. Is it a religious experience? Social connection? Ethnic identity? These and many more questions of “Copticity” spark my interest in studying the transnational nature of Coptic history. Copts are pivotal to understanding Egyptian history. Theirs is a story of globalization, international missionary experiences, cross-cultural encounters and transnational migrations.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I began a Master’s in Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, with a summer program at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, UK. Attending a Protestant seminary gave me firsthand academic familiarity in the dynamics and organization of Protestant institutions. My Master’s thesis explored Christian Zionism and the U.S. recognition of Israel, especially American Evangelicalism’s influence in the Middle East. This further developed my interest in studying the socio-political consequences of transnational Christian experiences. I then came back to UCSD’s History Department to focus on the stories of Coptic Protestantism and its relationship to American missionaries. Coptic Protestants are an interesting case: In the late 19th and early 20th century, most Coptic Protestants were originally Coptic Orthodox. Therefore, the origins of Coptic Protestant communities in Egypt are tied to a moment some may argue reflects divisions within the Church.

What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?

My dissertation explores the socio-political consequences in Egypt of American Missionary and Egyptian state struggle to govern girls’ gendered nationalist education.

Education is liberating and confining. It is often assumed that increased access to education facilitates women’s socio-economic mobility, improving civic participation and social benefits. Yet sometimes gendered education reinforces ideologies that demarcate concepts of femininity, circumscribing women’s place in society. In semi-colonial Egypt, girls’ education reinforced gender ideology, encoding beliefs of femininity while asserting difference in gendered citizenship. Amidst nation-state formation in 20th century Egypt, private missionary groups, with funding from international entities, challenged Egyptian state resources and sovereignty over education. This contested site couched prescriptive gender norms while exposing nationalist aims to shape the nation by fashioning the ideal female citizen, policing girls’ minds, bodies and roles in public and private domains. Offering a gendered analysis of Egyptian nationalism through the lens of education, I ask: how did competition over girls’ education shape and reflect constructions of female citizenship in semi-colonial [nominally independent] Egypt?

My dissertation focuses on the Asyut Pressly Memorial Institute, Upper Egypt’s prominent American Missionary girls’ school, amidst Egypt’s transition from pre-independence to nascent nationhood (1930s-1950s). Despite its impact in Upper Egypt, virtually no literature examines the school, mainly due to source inaccessibility and scarcity. I use a novel source composition including archival records, journals, oral histories, colonial records, uncatalogued educational materials (pamphlets, curriculum books), with neglected missionary and state sources collected throughout the USA, UK and Egypt. I argue that in Egypt’s nationalist milieu, foreign and domestic struggles to control girls’ education aimed to fashion the ideal female citizen. This education race produced a unique climate giving students space to influence their education. For example, missionary fears of students leaving their private education for state education, and vice versa, left space for students to exert agency in governing their own education. Students often used this spirit of competition to pressure for curriculum changes and demand vocational training reflecting their own career ambitions e.g. nursing programs. Using a global history approach, my work contributes to an understanding of American-Middle East relations by surveying the transnational politicization of girls’ education and its use in post-colonial nation-state formation.

In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?

Is there a “Coptic” history of Egypt? I grapple with this question in my work and with modern Egyptian historiography. To what extent do particular histories of ‘minorities’ empower these groups rather than restrain them into finite categories? As an Egyptian-American, I regularly evaluate the line I straddle between personal experience and academic scholarship. Coming from a mixed Coptic family, I’m aware of the range of beliefs Coptic communities have. There are moments in which the word Copt can encompass multiple denominations, but other instances when I’ve found there’s tension in accepting Coptic Protestants as “Coptic.” For example, I remember hearing the story of a family member who was raised Orthodox but married a Protestant. After years of marriage and raising a family, they were told by their local Bishop in al-Minya that the marriage was invalid because it was interdenominational and they were living an adulterous life. On a day-to-day basis, these instances really matter, particularly for people like them who consider themselves to be very religious. Stories like this remind me of how personal much of my work is.

I am also very aware of the need to think critically about my own positionality when approaching Coptic Studies. Being within the community, and communicating to those outside, I aim to place Copts as actors within historical narratives, not merely subjects of study. In other words, I seek to empower the agency of Copts using my work as an avenue to communicate their stories. Since there is no monolithic Coptic community, I highlight the diversity of thought and personal experiences that embody multiple Coptic communities.

Outside of academia, I volunteer with a humanitarian aid organization founded through grassroots endeavors with my Protestant Arabic Church. We come from many different communities in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Jordan and Egypt. We engage in community organizing and connect San Diego to groups in the Middle East needing resources and funding for local projects that are sustainable and make a social impact. We emphasize local partnerships because it preserves the dignity and agency of all involved. We are in constant communication with our partners in the Middle East and North Africa region, and we work to help make their grassroots projects possible. This has included groups in Kirkuk, Iraq that turned a church into a makeshift refugee center while they passed out food and supplies to those fleeing ISIL. We have an annual education initiative that provides students living in poverty with tutoring and school supplies from local businesses, benefitting local economies while giving students resources to aid in their success. To raise project funds, we organize an annual community Middle East dinner with over 400 attendees. We highlight diversity through food, history, culture and dance, sharing personal stories and showcasing San Diego’s vibrant Middle Eastern communities and our different histories. Empowering Middle Eastern immigrants to take charge in constructing narratives of their own communities through public history, while presenting it to the surrounding communities amongst whom they now live, allows people to see Middle East diversity firsthand. This forum gives space to immigrants to speak from a position of power and control the narratives told about their communities. It also breaks down stereotypes of sectarianism, oppression and violence that are often portrayed by mainstream media.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate? Do contemporary geo-political debates have a role to play in your discussion of Coptic populations?

Minorities are used as part of geopolitical maneuverings, such as when European imperialists argued they were protecting minorities by intervening into sovereign states. British colonists pushed this argument in Egypt, more so to guise their imperial interests rather than because of a concern for Copts in Egypt.

I think this pattern persists in current xenophobic and nationalist global climates. Often times Copts are placed into a problematic binary. On the one hand, groups espousing anti-Islamic rhetoric frame Copts as needing protection by Western nations in the name of human rights, as a pretext to justify their political maneuverings. On the other hand, groups with political or economic incentives tied to maintaining cordial relationships with governments in the Middle East are unwilling to criticize Egypt or Middle Eastern nations for their inequitable policies, often dismissing legitimate Coptic claims of discrimination and persecution. Therefore, geo-political debates influence the ways we fashion our work. I think, as scholars, we have to critique our positionality and be conscious of when and why we engage in self-censorship. Personally, I intentionally write on topics, like education, in which I can incorporate Copts into the discussion without engaging with this binary.

History is never created in a vacuum. I imagine years from now the very way we talk about Coptic Studies will change as historiography continues to be an object of study. For example, today’s concern about how geo-political debates influence our writing on Coptic populations speaks volumes about how modern Coptic Studies is changing. In an age of post-colonial nation-state formation, I think scholars are critiquing the boundaries of Coptic identity in novel ways. This includes how questions of citizenship and national belonging intersect, or not, with religious, ethnic and social identities. In other words, what does it look like in terms of day to day living to be a Copt in Egypt today vs. a Copt in North America? How does citizenship and legal status influence Coptic lived experiences given the transnational nature of Coptic populations? How are geo-political debates influencing Coptic collective memory, particularly with concepts like martyrdom? I think we’re in a unique juncture in which questions like these arise out of the distinct political context we work in.

As a modern Egypt scholar, I aim to empower Copts as actors in their own narratives rather than subjects within geopolitical discourse. I write to normalize Copts’ Egyptianness, without placing them in a separate category as a ‘minority’. Egypt is diverse, but it is rarely shown in this light. Bedouins, Nubians, Copts and many other groups in the nation all make up the vibrant fabric of society that is Egypt, but there is a pattern of marginalization that is apparent when groups challenge the singular identity of Egyptian nationhood. I think our responsibility as scholars is to critically examine these fault lines and speak to these anxieties. Coptic Studies can serve this mission well, as the intersectionality of Coptic identity can disrupt many of the singular narratives that bolster xenophobic and hyper nationalist rhetoric.

Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt and Coptic communities more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?

Coptic intersectionality is a rich framework for studying a variety of interdisciplinary topics. I would like to see more empowerment for narratives that emphasize how Copts currently have, and have had, an active role in modern Egypt outside of religious circles. Many accounts of broader Middle East studies sideline Coptic histories to Church histories or within ancient near eastern or medieval studies. Yet constantly examining Copts through a millet lens means privileging religious identity while neglecting the multidimensional experiences of Copts’ everyday lives in Egypt. Simultaneously, this is not to argue for ‘secular’ histories that eliminate religious experiences. Rather, there’s a variety of topics that I feel can be emboldened, particularly regarding Copts as actors in building modern Egypt from a socio-political standpoint. For example, many nationalist histories and accounts of modern Egypt marginalize Copts. All too often accounts are written that include the one or two symbolic Coptic figures who participated in political or economic spheres. It is usually, however, positioned as if Copts either joined movements already happening, or that they experienced a separate course of history in modern Egypt. But writing powerful inclusive narratives doesn’t mean just including a Coptic person in the story. I’m interested in writing inclusive narratives of socio-political development and nation-state building in Egypt that include Copts within the broader narrative, not primarily defined by their ‘otherness.’

I study Copts by both challenging and recognizing their millet identity, by questioning the secular and religious elements of Coptic experiences side by side. Building on this, I’d be interested in seeing more topics on Coptic life and experiences outside the church. I think we’re at an amazing moment in modern Coptic Studies where we are able to apply theories of gender, race, and transnational encounters to Coptic experiences in innovative ways. Looking at mixed sites of participation, like education, can be an intriguing base to build on. To do this, I think we can reconceptualize “Copticity.” Copts are not solely identified by a religious marker. Other elements like social class, urban-rural divides, intermarriage experiences, among others often influence daily life and are useful as future topics of research.

I am also interested in investigating how local politics influence Church experiences, particularly diving deeper into Coptic Protestantism within a transnational light. Coptic Protestantism embodies a hybrid identity that is neither entirely American nor entirely devoid of American Evangelical markers. American Evangelical politics permeates much of the discourse on global Protestantism, yet it is quite intriguing to see how Christian kinship is experienced across racial and ethnic lines. For example, US politics in the past 50 years has heavily influenced the organization of Protestant churches, with many different churches splitting off into separate denominations in reaction to theological and political debates on liberalism, like the ordination of women. In Egypt, local post-colonial politics similarly influenced church life. After missionaries were expelled in 1967, the Coptic Protestant churches asserted their Egyptian identity in response to government policies mandating religious institutions be under Egyptian leadership and ownership. This meant former American missionary schools, hospitals and churches were transferred to Coptic Protestant leadership. It is important to note that Coptic Protestantism maintains a “Coptic” identity amidst its changing political and theological landscape. Theologically, they maintain elements of Protestantism like Calvinist principles. In services, early 20th century Coptic Protestants historically sang English hymns translated into Arabic by missionaries. Now, however, popular Arabic worship songs from singers like Maher Fayez replace the English counterparts. These differences in Protestant expressions expose the blurred lines of transnational religious identity. Surveying Coptic Protestantism within this context allows us to rethink what are traditional markers of Egyptian nationalism, transnational identities and “Copticity.”

Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?

I have enjoyed teaching global history, particularly when discussing the Middle East within such interdisciplinary frameworks. I want students to recognize the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity in the region. I aim to continue diversity initiatives with my future work and academic career. Building on this, I plan on studying more spaces—like local community organizing and political mobilization—in which Copts are examined alongside other groups without using the Church as the primary lens for analysis. Right now, I examine the changing constructions of female citizenship through girls’ education, taking it as a part of nation-state building endeavors. In the future, I plan on studying similar themes by placing Copts in conversation with Nubian and Bedouin experiences in Egypt. Primarily, I plan on writing more histories of 20th century Upper Egypt that are devoid of Cairo-centric accounts. There are many subcultures in Egyptian life that are useful for future study. Much of my family comes from Upper Egypt. Hearing their stories of local politics and pride in a distinct Upper Egyptian (“Sai’di”) identity inspires my questions of just how politically and socially connected Egyptians feel to the Cairo ‘center.’ While my dissertation now focuses on Upper Egypt, my future projects will expand on this work and feature Egyptians’ lived experiences beyond Lower Egypt.


The CCHP is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact theCCHP@gmail.com if you would like to join or support the Project.


Mirna Wasef is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of California, San Diego. She investigates girls’ education, Egyptian nationalism and constructions of female citizenship in contemporary Egypt. Focusing on Upper Egypt, she examines how Upper Egyptians governed, shaped and engaged in girls’ education through American missionary schools amidst competition from the state and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. She explores the status of Copts in modern Egypt within broader narratives of Egyptian nationalism, primarily surveying how education influenced political activism in modern Egypt while incorporating experiences of subaltern communities into larger narratives of Egyptian history. She is currently Vice-Moderator for the National Middle Eastern Presbyterian Caucus and has written for Egyptian Streets and the Coptic Canadian History Project

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