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Cultural Background Paper


The present paper investigates my intersecting cultural upbringing between the two most powerful identities, Egyptian and Coptic Orthodox Christianity. As a result of living in Egypt during my adolescence, I was able to acquire knowledge of the cultural practices, norms, values, gender roles, and religious beliefs that were prominent in the Egyptian and Coptic cultures directly. In terms of displacement, discrimination, bullying, and threats of violence, I suffered from these as a woman in a religious minority group, which had a major impact on my identity development and advocacy. I discuss my battles as a woman living under an inflexible code of conduct in my family and community based on female purity and honour rights. However, despite the constraints arising from such norms, the Coptic Orthodox Church also became my haven that brought me peace and spiritual relief amid chaos. I analyze how the minority Coptic culture differs from the dominantly Islamic Egyptian culture, with some areas of overlap and tensions leading to interreligious conflicts, which I witnessed when living in Egypt. In sum, my research as a future counsellor highlights the importance of promoting identity safety for minorities and advocating against structural barriers which limit identity development.

Keywords: Cultural identity, Coptic Orthodox Christianity Minority, identity, Gender roles, Religious customs, Cultural displacement, Discrimination Identity, development, Female purity, codes, Honor codes, Refuge Spiritual comfort Interreligious tensions Inclusion Identity safety Structural barriers


The major cultural heritages in my family are the Egyptian and Coptic Orthodox Christian cultures. Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side were born and brought up in Egypt and had a background in Coptic Orthodox Christian religion. My father was also born and raised in Egypt to Coptic Orthodox Christian parents. While Islamic sect is considered to be the majority religion in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Christian community has a very ancient history of the region. In this paper, I discuss my upbringing in the United States and Egypt, my consciousness of these cultural identities, the practices, beliefs, and values within my family’s Egyptian and Coptic Orthodox Christian background, and the cultural background’s impact on my perception of racial/cultural identity development and social justice advocacy.

Cultural Background and Identity

New York was the place where I was born during my parents’ time of their studies in the United States. I spent my early childhood in Egypt since we moved back there from the USA after my birth. We came to California when I was only 8 years old. Nevertheless, I did not fully realize my Egyptian and Egyptian Orthodox cultural identity until I was 13 years old when we went back to Egypt for my father’s job. That was a huge cultural shock for me. We had grown up in the British international schools, which were attended by children of different nationalities. All of a sudden in an instant, I was immersed into an Egyptian school system taught in the language of Arabic, where uniforms were enforced, and where the social customs were so different from what I had been used to. My peers mocked my Arabic accent, and I was also lagged behind a lot in my academics because I had never been accustomed to the Egyptian school syllabus.

In addition to assimilating into the Egyptian school life, I also had to learn how to function socially within my family’s Coptic Orthodox Christian community that I had not previously encountered to that extent while growing up primarily in America. There are strict standards concerning the virginity of girls before marriage, because anything else could lead to the honor of a family (Hays & Erford, 2021, Chapter 2). Pre-marital or dating relationships are therefore condemned. Additionally to the vaguely stated legal consequences, a community of such kind is certainly tight-knit, and its members tend to be very social, and consequently, there can be intense social consequences for youth caught breaking these norms (Keum, 2023). While boys and men are allowed some leeway and social facilities, girls have to be closely guarded. It was during this period that my father, who was the head of the household as a patriarch, became stricter in regard to rules about permissions, curfews, and keeping up the family name. On the contrary, my mother was more in an employee’s role, which was oriented on house and upbringing of children.

Moreover, the Coptic Orthodox became much more significant to me during the teenage years that I spent in Egypt. I quite often attended liturgy with my family, and I went to some additional church lessons and summer camps. This was quite different from how I was raised in the United States, where it was only the case of going to the church on special occasions. To me in Egypt, I was defined by my Coptic Orthodox identity in almost every social setting where religious minorities are discriminated upon and threatened with violence. Indeed, I saw tensions and violent attacks increase against the Coptic community when I was in high school. As it was centered on church, my social life which was already well protected, became even more limited. Ironically, while I was constrained and suppressed by societal norms linking my value to the concepts of female purity, the church became a sanctuary where I found solace from the uncertainty of my life in a world that was changing around me.

Similarities and Differences from Predominant Egyptian Culture

There is some common ground between my family’s Coptic Orthodox roots and the majority of Muslims in Egypt who represent the official culture, for the Coptic Orthodox have lived side by side with the Muslims in Egypt for a long time (CIA World Factbook, 2022). For example, certain gender role expectations on women’s chastity and masculinity are shared social norms. The same can be said about Patriarchy and respect for the older generation in both cultures. But there are also clearly different aspects that unfortunately have exacerbated interreligious conflicts.

While the mosques are the central places of spiritual importance for Egyptian Muslims, Coptic Orthodox have their own churches, saints, calendar of fasting periods, and Sunday worship services. Coptic Orthodox church has its own Pope and theological roots that trace back to fifth century AD, where it separated from other Christian branches due to doctrinal differences concerning the nature of Christ (Ali, 2021) Furthermore, the old Coptic language adapted with Greek letters is still used for worship and scriptures.

These other areas of difference include cultural practices such as male circumcision, religious inspired art forms, funeral practices, some food restrictions, and preferred social greetings. Egyptian Muslims often greet each other with ‘as-salamu alaykum’ (peace be upon you); on the other hand, Coptic Christians use the greeting “Es salaam aleekum” (peace to you). From a legal standpoint, religious identity also affects rights and depiction in Egypt. The discrimination my family faced was through policies that made it hard to construct or renovate churches rather than mosques, denying jobs, and negative social images (CIA World Factbook, 2022). In seasons of extremism, there were church attacks and mob violence aimed at Coptic people. I experienced bullying when I was in school because of my minority status in a country that legislatively promotes Sunni Islam. During my adolescence, this constant “outsiderness” caused a psychological injury, making me feel as if I was of lower value.

Influence on Perspectives on Identity Development

My personal experiences of dealing with the cultural displacement and discrimination towards my Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian adolescence, significantly contributed to my beliefs regarding the need for healthy identity development. The effects of bullying and social isolation that I had to go through have changed my self-confidence forever, allowing me to channel my fear of judgment and doubt of my abilities that plague me to this day. My personal painful experiences of marked cultural adjustment made me see how remarkably the external messages shape the internal perceptions of the self of the teenagers during the crucial adolescent period.

The violence that I saw between the religious groups in Egypt drove home to me the power of communal narratives and the sway of stereotyped identities upon welfare and wellbeing. When the youth fails to find positive mirroring of their identities within the social domains, the consequences spread far and wide insofar as they determine future life paths by limiting the perceived potential and possibilities. The chapter “Cultural Identity Development” (Hays & Erford, 2021, Chapter 2) analyses different models describing stages that individuals may go through when dealing with the notions of cultural belonging and trying to figure out their differences. I profoundly connect with the revelation stage described through several models, although it evokes a shocking sensation of coming to terms with my own ‘otherness’ at the age of thirteen and being thrown into Egyptian culture. At a very critical period of my life, the pivot life transition of young adult, I realized that my Coptic Orthodox identity was devalued socially, disappointing my self-esteem.

Although, it is indicative that persons from marginalized backgrounds who are able to explore and integrate these identities in empowering ways can show resilience and persistence in the presence of stigma, symmetry is observed between societal messages and young people’s internal resources and coping capacities (Logie, 2022). The supporting scaffolding must be present within the immediate caregiving environments and social structures as a whole in order to achieve positive identity outcomes. As such, I strongly believe that counselors and other youth advocates need to actively promote safe identity exploration that is inclusive and diverse through classroom discourses, curriculum representation, modeling acceptance, and policy level inclusion initiatives.

Thus, like my own experience of cultural displacement in the process of migration transitions, I also recognize the helpfulness of counseling interventions that make sense of the students’ experiences and help them to connect with others across sociocultural contexts. The creative arts approach that encourages self-expression can help to externalize the inner conflict that identity arouses, bringing catharsis and a new perspective (Hays & Erford, 2021, Chaper 2). For instance, building community with peers struggling with parallel identity integration issues also provides mirroring because of the shared understandings. The counselors have a significant role to play in creating an environment that supports the identity development of the youth by inculcating the philosophy of unconditional positive regard (Keum, 2023).

Perspectives on Social Justice and Advocacy

As my close personal experience with the religious-based marginalization and oppression in Egypt sparked my interest in social justice movements seeking to eliminate the structural injustices, my visit to Morocco rekindled my zeal for change that would make the world a more equal place. Being part of the American expatriate community in Cairo afforded me and my family some privileged status that protected us from the most egregious acts of minority discrimination; however, my high school years coincided with the rise of religious extremism and the gross injustices meted out on other Coptic Egyptians were not lost on me. The fear and victimization of my community generated fury in me as a response to agents who use power for purposes of disenfranchising the weak. What bothered me the most was the apparent indifference of those who were not concerned with the violence and did not care about the agony of my Coptic friends.

These actions made a deep impression of identity-based persecution should not be tolerated whatever reasons or tactics one uses in dividing people. My social and political awakening was able to find similarities between the Coptic minorities’ weakness in Egypt and other groups of minorities that have been oppressed throughout history from my research, including the Black Americans under the Jim Crow segregation or Jewish communities in the Holocaust. Whilst the specifics of the oppression metrics may vary between cases, there are underlying patterns that remain; groups in society that are oppressive often promote stories of stereotyped narratives to gain control and resources to benefit their in-group whilst leaving others with little dignity and protection.

As I became aware of the traumatic generational legacy of marginalization that remains in place even after the abolition of overt forms of discrimination like slavery or apartheid, I became strongly convinced that counselors should go beyond their helping roles to become vocal social justice advocates. While rapid interventions are clinically valuable during the immediate emotional impact of identity-based trauma for the clients, this should not come at the expense of also naming and actively dismantling. The counselors have responsibilities that are ethically described from the ACA Code of Ethics (2014), to make a social justice stand on micro, mezzo, and macro levels (Adoma, 2022). This involves evaluating the dynamics in the power structures between client systems and the creation of interculturally responsive interventions that empower minorities, promote inclusive communities, and eliminate oppressive sociopolitical structures to create barriers to access and opportunity.

Counselors in micro levels can mediate the internalized negative stereotypes, make meaning out of the cultural experience, and self-efficacy to pursue goals regardless of structural constraints. Mezzo changes include engaging families, schools, and community agencies to create invalidating environments that limit identity growth. Finally, in terms of the macro level, counselors play an advocacy role for legislative actions that are aimed at policies that unfairly disadvantage marginalized cultural groups. The basis of my passion for social justice is in the ideal that all people should get the opportunity to autonomously choose their paths in life without prejudices based on their identities.


In conclusion, by critically analyzing my family’s cultural heritage across Egyptian and Coptic Orthodox Christian identities, I gained profound understanding of factors implying identity construction and perceptions of social justice activism. I emphasize that positive mirroring across socio-ecological levels promote the ability of the youth to assimilate cultural experiences, whereas stigma is trans-generational trauma. Such lessons further my cause as a future counselor to promote inclusive environments where identities are accepted, and where systemic oppression is dismantled.


Adoma, J. Q. (2022). CONTINUOUS TRAUMATIC STRESS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN COUNSELOR EDUCATION. Trauma in Adult and Higher Education: Conversations and Critical Reflections, 295.

Ali, A. A. The Blood of Christians is Seed: The 5th Gospel and the Growth of the Church.

Central Intelligence Agency (2022). The World Factbook – Egypt.

Hays, D. G., & Erford, B. T. (2021). Developing multicultural counseling competence: A systems approach (4th ed.). Pearson.

Logie, C. H., Earnshaw, V., Nyblade, L., Turan, J., Stangl, A., Poteat, T., … & Baral, S. (2022). A scoping review of the integration of empowerment-based perspectives in quantitative intersectional stigma research. Global public health, 17(8), 1451-1466.

Keum, B. T., Ahn, L. H., Choi, A. Y., Choudhry, A., Nguyen, M., Meizys, G. M., … & Hearns, M. (2023). Asian American Men’s Gendered Racial Socialization and Fragmented Masculinity: Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. The Counseling Psychologist, 51(5), 684-718.

Magnus, C. D. (2022). Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. In Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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