Egyptian Virginity

Undoubtedly the most telling phrase from last week’s reportage on Egypt’s infamous virginity tests is this, courtesy of the New York Times: “Until recently, the Egyptian news media, cowed by the ruling generals’ investigations of journalists and bloggers who were deemed to ‘insult’ the institution of the military, scarcely covered the charges.”

Those charges, as some of the world now knows, were actually nine months old. Last March, when much of Cairo appeared on Tahrir Square, demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who was then the country’s perpetual ruler, 200 demonstrators were arrested, of whom 20 were women. They were beaten by soldiers (as were their male counterparts), and then transported to a military base where they were convicted of what Egypt calls “thuggery.”

Within short order at least  seven of these women—but almost undoubtedly more—were subjected to “virginity tests,” a form of torture in which the true object—as Samira Ibrahim, one of the women thus brutalized, says—is very simple: rape. And not simply rape in its most physical and obvious form, but rape in all of its aspects. The subjugation of the helpless, first of all. The ultimate and most perfect humiliation of a gender that undergoes repeated and constant humiliations in that country on a daily basis. The trashing of members of that sex who have the temerity to fight against a destiny imposed on them by both the state and their religion.  

All of these elements were at play as a military doctor determined (while assorted soldiers watched) who among the women arrested were or were not virgins. “Two men in military uniforms came into the cell,” Ibrahim recalled. “They took us out one by one. When it was my turn they took me to a bed in a passageway in front of the cell. There were lots of soldiers around and they could see me. I asked if the soldiers could move away and the officer escorting me tasered me. The woman prison guard in plain clothes stood at my head and then a man in military uniform examined me with his hand for several minutes. It was painful. He took his time. It was clear he was doing it on purpose to humiliate me.”

The military, of course, had all sorts of excuses for what they were doing to those women. “When they first took us to the military prison, the officer told the guards that we’d been arrested for prostitution,”  Salwa al-Hosseini, another of the arrested, told Human Rights Watch. “But when they brought us before the prosecutor later that day there were no charges related to prostitution. On Thursday morning, the officers came in and said they would check to see if we were virgins.”

Virgins, prostitutes …

Of all those violated, only Ibrahim has the courage and the presence of mind to sue the Egyptian military about her treatment. And, one might add, only because of Ibrahim—whose fate, now that she has allowed herself to be identified, is in serious jeopardy, to say the least—did an administrative court in Cairo determine, long after the fact, that hmmmm … yes … maybe the human rights of the arrested women were in fact abrogated nine long months ago. Egyptian military investigations, as Human Rights Watch has determined, usually take from one to two weeks before they are referred to a court of law.

“I know the odds are against me,” Ibrahim said back then when she first made the decision to take her complaint against the military public. “The state will keep dragging this out. They want me to give up and drop the case.” And not only the military component of the state, either—as she swiftly discovered. Last July, the prosecutor called in the military doctor Ibrahim and others had accused of molestation; he of course denied he had ever harmed the women. However, we have to take his protestations on faith. Ibrahim’s lawyer, Ahmed Hossam, informed Human Rights Watch that he was not permitted to listen to the good doctor as he testified, nor, least of all, to question him.

Last November, as Ibrahim also informed Human Rights Watch, she received threatening phone calls, all of them anonymous. She also received calls on her cell phone without the corresponding numbers—a sure sign in Egypt, where all numbers appear on cell phones, that these came from members of security agencies.

It would be difficult to overestimate the loneliness and the terror of being a lone female voice in Cairo, suing the government for violation. Almost no one stood up for either Ibrahim or her fellow detainees. Not the military. Not Obama. Not Sarkozy or Merkel or Cameron. And above all, not the Egyptian press, which reported almost nothing about Ibrahim until she proved victorious in court.

“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” an Egyptian general who wanted to remain anonymous told CNN late last May. “We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place.”

Come to think of it, I don’t know how victorious either Ibrahim or any of us should feel about what’s happening in Egypt. One thing’s for sure: It ain’t spring.

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