Hidden in Egypt’s closet: Virginity testing as a tactic of repression

Samira Ibrahim

Women’s broad and persistent participation in the ongoing revolution in Egypt has brought a gruesome new tactic to light—virginity testing.  This form of repression that specifically targets female activists and journalists peaked around March 2011, and under Egypt’s post-Mubarak military leadership, the tactic is on the rise.

Recently, the courageous Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old Egyptian human rights activist, has not only publicly exposed the torture she and other women were subjected to, but she is filing a legal case against the Egyptian military for sexual assault. Human Rights Watch and other human rights advocacy and defense organizations have denounced the practice of virginity testing and are helping publicize Samira’s case, including a video testimony by Samira that details her experience.

Certainly, sexual torture is not new in Egypt, and men have been subject to it. Bloggers have helped expose this form of torture for years. In June 2011, the popular writer and lecturer, Mona Eltahawy, helped bring to light the new issue of virginity testing as part of a larger strategy targeting women to discourage them from participating in protest activities. She rightly declares, “If the ‘it wasn’t about gender’ mantra is stuck on repeat so that we don’t scare the boys away, then let them remember the state screwed them too…”

Up to now, virginity testing as a tactic of repression has remained in the closet among Egyptians. In this patriarchal, conservative, and now military-run society, it is not difficult to understand how a woman’s virginity could be used as rationale to intimidate detained female activists by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Women’s overwhelming participation during the revolution helped break open myths and traditions about gender in the Middle East. The current military regime’s understands this, and the desire to supposedly restore law and order, while keeping the country wrapped in the patriarchal cloak that has suffocated Egyptians, naturally requires a strategy to quell mass protests. Security forces naturally gravitate to repressive, coercive means. So what better way to keep half the population off the streets and under military control than to intimidate women using the threat of spotlighting the most intimate, personal of issues in a jail cell and later in a military tribunal, with the added accusation of prostitution?

General sexual harassment toward women in Egypt has existed for many years, and there are many Egyptians using tools to tackle the issue. The 2010 film 678 offers three vignettes of harassment and rape against Egyptian women, and the societal repercussions these women face after rape and after reporting such crimes. This is a problem that has multiplied in recent years, in part due to growing conservatism, in part due to a poor economy that has many unemployed, disgruntled young men idle in the street (women know how this goes no matter where they come from).

Egyptian women knew what they could face in January 2011 at Tahrir Square, and they went out in huge numbers anyway.  During a recent conversation with Nada Zohdy, a program assistant at the Project on Middle East Democracy, she recounted how two weeks ago, in another wave of protests, she found herself in Tahrir very late at night. She realized at that moment that she was the only female in sight and was surprised to feel safe overall despite the massive gender imbalance in the crowd and not seeing any other women among the hundreds of people. She attributes this sense of safety to the unique, powerful spirit of solidarity that exists in the square.  “The challenge now is how to replicate that kind of gender unity and respect in post-revolution Egypt,” Nada added.  It seems the revolution brought out the best in Egyptians.

The issues of women’s rights and reforms, religious conservatism, and how to reconcile women’s rights with Sharia are a challenge that women are prepared to confront. A POMED policy brief on women in the Arab uprisings rightly states: It is important that women’s rights are recognized as a key human rights issue, and not compartmentalized. Despite Egypt’s recent historic elections, there is still much work to be done, and this recent article highlights Egyptians participation in the vote, and the need to continue to demand an end to military rule.

It is interesting to juxtapose Samira’s case against a recent bold action by Aliaa Elmadi, a 21-year-old Egyptian woman who posted nude photos of herself in protest of Egypt’s patriarchy. There was a strong backlash against her action, both by Egyptian men and women. And the irony is that her blog and tweets went viral, receiving global attention, including this interview with CNN, while Samira’s case struggles to gain international attention. A quick Google search offered me at least five pages of detailed information on Aliaa (with photos) vs. five entries on Samira.

Egypt’s diverse women are insisting that women’s rights be part of the conversations on democracy and that it fall directly within the frame of human rights and freedom. Women shouldn’t have to wait for “the right time” to bring up their rights in the democracy building process. As Mona Eltahay rightly stated back in June: “It’s a perfect time for gender to come out of the revolution’s closet.” And young Samira, the many Egyptian female activists and human rights defenders like Nada of POMED, and even the radical Aliaa Elmahdy, are breaking open the closet door.

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