"I deeply struggled on coming to terms with who I am. Despite these incidents of abuse that I experienced and witnessed, I consider myself a resilient person even today."
Content Warning: This article contains some graphic descriptions of physical abuse that may be triggering for some readers.
Mariam Atnasious strives to be a mental health advocate, along with facilitating conversation surrounding all forms of violence. As she continues her education at Queen’s University, she aims to utilize the knowledge she obtains to educate others to look at issues from an intersectional approach and to advocate for a greater cross-cultural approach in health care. In addition, she has co-founded and is presently the co-president of Freedom From Violence, a Queen’s University ratified club. Freedom From Violence aims to normalize discussion surrounding all forms of violence and to connect students and community members to the resources available.
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your culture?
MA: Hey, my name is Mariam! I am 20 years old and currently attending Queen’s University, majoring in Psychology. I am an immigrant from Egypt (born and raised in Cairo until I was 7). My pronouns are she/her. I identify as a Coptic woman, an Indigenous ethno-religious and cultural minority group in Egypt. My ancestral language, Coptic, has largely been lost due to centuries of persecution and is only used in liturgical celebrations today. As a result, most Coptic people speak Arabic. Coptic persecution spans centuries and even today Copts living in Egypt continue to witness the bombings of our churches, face executions, and martyrdom, but our culture continues to persist. I encourage you to learn more about Coptic history if you have the time to do research about it – it is worthwhile and very interesting. You can also feel free to reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss more!
SWY: What process did you go through in order to learn more about your personal identity?
MA: I was actually encouraged to learn about my identity from my best friend (Miriam John). I have struggled with internalized racism/colonial mentality. So, for a long time, when other people asked about my cultural background, I would describe myself as being “Arab” or “Egyptian”. However, the conversations I’ve had with Miriam encouraged me to learn more about my cultural identity. I started researching more (about 10+ hours each day of quarantine) by reading books, watching documentaries, and speaking to my peers. I don’t think I am fully there yet in figuring out my personal identity journey, but for now, I have a firm understanding and am proud to say I am Coptic.
SWY: Can you tell us more about the abuse women experience within the school system?
MA: Racialized Coptic girls and women experience many forms of abuse within the Egyptian school system. I want to draw on the fact that my family was of low socioeconomic status and didn’t have the privilege to send me to Coptic schools or any private schools. Due to these circumstances, my experiences underlie the abuses in the public-school system. The first form of abuse that is experienced was physical abuse. Not only was I physically abused by my teachers and principals, but my friends were also. This would often occur if homework was not complete, accusations of cheating, not listening in the classroom, and many more. One experience I recall is being slapped by my math teacher for getting a math question wrong. These punishments were done in front of peers and served to instill fear in students as a way to strive towards greater academic success. The second form of abuse I experienced revolved around spirituality. My parents were unable to afford schooling that would allow me to learn Coptic (language) and with Egypt held under Islamic rule, I was forced and restricted to read and pray the Quran. I could not leave the classroom and would be punished if I stayed silent during the lessons. This put a huge emotional toll on myself and my Coptic friends as it forced us to disregard the core aspects of our identities and led to shame. The third form surrounds sexual abuse. I want to highlight that double standard in Egypt, a set of principles in which self-identified women and girls were constantly held to a lower standard than self-identified males. Due to this double standard in Egypt, sexual abuse was prevalent within the school system and often never punished. I heard many accounts from my parents, who also went through this school system, regarding peers who were sexually assaulted. The majority of our Islamic teachers committed these abusive acts and were excused of their wrongdoings because Coptic girls were seen and treated as inferior by the majority and “outside” the community – it was perceived as natural because of the unfair system that existed.
SWY: How do you think your identity is shaped from your past experiences based on your culture?
MA: I think my cultural identity was especially shaped by my past experiences. I deeply struggled on coming to terms with who I am. Despite these incidents of abuse that I experienced and witnessed, I consider myself a resilient person even today. Although I continue to have internal conflicts about my identity, I believe my experiences furthered my cultural empathy, better allowing me to connect with those of similar experiences. Although I developed amazing traits, they are rooted in the anger and toxic traits that I am continuing to ameliorate. What came out of the abuse was that I was afraid of trusting others and finding an effective way of communicating that doesn’t involve yelling or outer forms of aggression. Today, I am dismantling those traits and anger with the privilege of being able to access therapy.
SWY: How have your experiences been shaped through the intergenerational trauma of your family history?
MA: Bouncing off my point from the previous question, I built up anger and upheld toxic beliefs. These were key elements of the intergenerational trauma that I was a part of. Intergenerational trauma means that trauma continues to be passed on for generations with no disregard to dissenting voices/nonconformity. Experiences of abuse and trauma unfold in many ways, often leading to unintentionally doing or communicating what one only knows to their children.
“You cannot raise your children how your parents raised you, because they raised you for a world that no longer exists.” – Mufti Menk
I definitely stand by this quote. It a) addresses the fact that I can’t harbour anger or blame towards my parents who were raised and raised me by the only information they knew of the world and b) it illustrates my responsibility to now break that intergenerational trauma and use the education I now have to educate my children as well as my siblings.
SWY: If you could say one thing to a survivor of abuse, what would it be?
MA: Your experience doesn’t define you. This statement took a while for me to resonate with, but I believe that as I grow and look back on my experiences of abuse, I recognize that although they are parts of who I am, I am much more than that.
SWY: In 10 years, what changes would you like to see happen in society in regard to supporting survivors of abuse and intergenerational trauma?
MA: In 10 years, I would like to see conversations surrounding abuse take on an intersectional approach, looking at all intersecting aspects of one’s identity and lived experiences. This goes hand in hand with a diverse healthcare system put in place to assist the survivor – emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. There needs to be healthcare and law professionals in place who understand different cultures and how each culture defines abuse and trauma. The western perspective should not be the only or dominant perspective. I also believe students can be a part of this change by educating themselves about different cultures and speaking to peers about their upbringings.