Egypt, Virginity Tests, and Phase Two of the Revolution


On 27 December Judge Aly Fekry of the Cairo Administrative Court banned virginity testing of female detainees. The court’s decision comes after months of mounting criticism of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which began governing Egypt after Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011.

The case was filed by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre on behalf of two women, including 25-year old Samira Ibrahim. At least 17 women were “tested” following widespread arrests during a March 2011 demonstration in Tahrir Square. Female detainees were beaten, strip-searched, and photographed by male soldiers with the implicit threat that their photos might later be released. They were later forced to form two lines of “virgins” and “non-virgins”, where “virgins” were subjected to virginity tests by guards and threatened with prostitution charges. One woman reported being subjected to electric shocks when her test allegedly revealed that she wasn’t a virgin. Amnesty International found that the testing amounted to torture and requested a formal investigation from the SCAF. They didn’t receive any response, but in May a senior General admitted to the tests and defended them as a means of protection for the military against accusations of rape by female detainees, and cast judgment on the moral character of women involved in the Egyptian Revolution, stating that female detainees “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with men where Molotov cocktails and drugs were found”.

Testing has been widely discredited as medically inaccurate due to its subjectivity in modalities of testing and subsequent trauma. While medical examinations of detainees upon request are encouraged by regional and international human rights instruments on detention conditions to safeguard against torture by documenting detainees’ health, it’s unclear how virginity tests would be beneficial to female detainees or in preventing false accusations of rape as the Egyptian General’s comments imply that only virgins can be raped. It may also pave the way for impunity for assaults, as women presumed not to be virgins would have little ground on which they could accuse guards of rape and the already unreliable tests can’t distinguish whether prior sexual activity was consensual. While virginity tests in Egypt are common enough that there is a growing market for corrective surgery for new brides, their use in detention centres appears to be a new tactic by the military or was formerly underreported due to stigma.

While the ruling is promising, it is also indicative of the nature of SCAF rule. Egypt has reached new levels of repression under the SCAF. 28 Coptic Christians were killed in demonstrations on 9 October in the Maspero Massacre. Nazra for Feminist Studies documented several cases of sexual assault by plainclothes police and security following demonstrations on 19 November. State owned media has largely failed to cover the virginity testing and images from the popular press that showed police tearing female protestors’ clothing and beating them on the 16 December sit-ins at the Cabinet Building were blocked. 17 NGOs’ offices were stormed on 29 December, including three US organizations.

Mubarak’s abdication has done little to change the nature of repression in Egypt. Broad powers of arrest and detention have largely been focused on progressive voices and there has been little tangible reform of the judiciary and Public Prosecutor’s offices. Since February, over 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts, more than the whole in Mubarak’s tenure. Many arrested participants have been summarily tried and sentenced without legal representation by military courts with a 93% conviction rate. Charges have centred around “thuggery” and “assault to police” even when they appear to be genuine and peaceful examples of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and association. In the case of the women arrested in March, several of them were brought before a military court on 11 March and released on 13 March after receiving one year suspended prison sentences. Only one soldier faces court martial in early January and is being charged with “public indecency and not following orders”. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is currently lobbying for the charges to be amended to sexual assault and a wider investigation to be conducted to counter impunity. Efforts to transform the nature of Egyptian politics and reform the judiciary in advance of the parliamentary December 2011 elections were extremely slow, and it appears as if the SCAF simply lacks the political will to do so.

It is unsurprising then that the basis of the new political dispensation of Egypt has been largely superficial. Interestingly, Ms. Ibrahim mentioned in her complaint that the “tests also do not comply with the constitution, which states equality between men and women”. The controversial provisional constitution passed in March 2011 contained supra-constitutional measures that some parties viewed as potentially limiting the new Parliament’s ability to form a constituent assembly that will draft the new constitution. Women were entirely excluded from constitutional committees, with prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi stating that “we are furious. We participated in every part of the revolution, and then as soon as it ended we were completely isolated”.

Arab Spring, Egypt, Women's Rights, Torture, Rape, Sexual Violence