The role of women is in some ways a microcosm of the history and current situation of the Coptic Church. Women were present in the Egyptian monastic movement from the earliest period. With the Arabization of Egypt, their activities became more restricted. As in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions, women cannot be ordained, and ordained clergy have taken greater control of church life. Yet women in the modern era have sought to contribute more to the Church, either as laywomen, nuns, or as consecrated women.
The sayings of the so-called 'desert mothers' indicate that women lived as solitary ascetics in isolated areas of Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. The writings of Pachomius and Shenoute show that women's communities existed under the umbrella of these coenobitic leaders through the fifth century. After the Arab conquest, women's monasticism gradually weakened, but persisted until the twelfth century. The modern monastic revival in the Coptic Orthodox Church has touched women as well. Contemplative nuns are now present at six sites in Egypt, leading a cloistered life consciously patterned on the ideals of the Pachomians. Active nuns, belonging to the Daughters of Mary in Beni Suef, may live in the convent or close to the institutions where they work, such as orphanages, clinics, etc. A role for consecrated women appeared in the 1980s. Shenouda III proposed a three stage process: (1) consecrated woman, (2) consecration as subdeaconess and (3) consecration as deaconess. The consecrated woman does not serve in the liturgy in any way; rather, she assists the needy or provides catechetical instruction. Some may progress to monastic vows and become nuns; others may progress to become deaconesses, a status reserved for older women. The conflict between the control of women in Egyptian society as a whole and the freedom sought by these consecrated women (and other female monastics) has been carefully studied by P. van Doorn-Harder (1995). Laywomen are expected to make family life their main concern, as in contemporary Egyptian society. Yet modern Coptic women combine careers with family and also pursue seminary studies in order to lead their own groups. Laywomen have volunteered in social welfare projects and at the Sunday schools. A new development took place in 1985 when women ran for seats in the Majlis Milli and voted in the election.
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