On Wednesday February 8th, Egypt’s head of military court has made a statement urging media outlet to halt the coverage on the “Virginity Tests” case. This decision came at the backdrop of the unraveling court case filed by Samira Ibhrahim. But who is Samira Ibrahim and why does the Military Forces want to ban publication on the matter?
Samira was arrested in Tahrir Square during a protest on 9 March and was subjected to virginity testing alongside other six women in military prison. Initially, the military generals adamantly tried to deny that those tests took place. It wasn’t until a CNN interview where an anonymous general admitted it. Later, in a meeting with Amnesty International, the Head of the Military Intelligence Department explained that those tests are performed to “protect the army against possible allegations of rape”. The statement reveals that not only such tests already occur, but it was a routine procedure by prison officials to avoid female prisoners’ claims of sexual violence. This statement is of much concern because we don’t know the extent of abuse female detainees are exposed to while perpetrators are easily getting away with it.
Human rights groups in Egypt filed a case in front of the administrative court on behalf of Samira Ibrahim, the only detainee who decided to defy the authority, speak up and take it to court despite the threats she was receiving. Late December, the court made its historic rule to ban “Virginity Tests” and deemed it a violation of both Egyptian constitution & legislation and the International Agreements that Egypt is party to. The court rule is considered an official acknowledgement that those tests actually took place and that those responsible must be brought to justice. However further legal developments were not as promising, as only one military doctor has been brought to justice in front of military court, notorious for its lack of independence and fair trial procedures. The charges against that doctor were changed from sexual assault to public indecency which amounts to much less punitive action. Moreover, the case has been postponed several times and the fate of her case is still unclear.
Virginity tests come as part of a long list of abuses by the military forces against Egyptians. Since the military council of armed forces took charge of the country after Mubarak stepping down, military and police forces have used excessive force against protesters which resulted in hundreds dead and many thousands injured. The violence against peaceful protesters is one of the strategies upheld by these forces to discourage participation in protests and acts of resistance to military rule. Women have been targeted during those demonstrations by excessive violence and the other weapon that state knows how to use well: the shaming of women.
For an array of political, socioeconomic, and historic reasons, our country is suffering from deeply-held patriarchal values and “honor”-based practices. This is manifested in many ways including the justification of gender-based violence against women. Women who do not conform to that system are punished, and they carry the burden of the blame. The state uses this value system to kill the revolutionary spirit. They know that by targeting women, they will strike the chords of patriarchy that affects both women and men. Women will be blamed, shamed and traumatized. Men will also be shamed when they know they were not able to help their women and attain redress for their violated bodies. Another clear example of this is when women protesters were brutally and sexually assaulted while protesting the constitutional amendments in May 25th, 2005, which was called the Black Wednesday.
The state has failed to deliver to protect women against violence whether in private or public spheres. Women in Egypt suffer from high rates of sexual harassment, domestic violence, widespread cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and “honor”-motivated violence. Virginity tests were used to humiliate those protesters and enforce the idea that these are morally loose women for taking the street. If we look back at the history of such tests, we will find many such examples in history even dating back to biblical sources. In a recent article, historian Khaled Fahmy offers a Foucaultian analysis of the history of the state introducing virginity tests into Egypt to prove that it’s a state tool to control the people, rather than ensuring their health and welfare.
Indeed such virginity tests are considered by human rights groups and the scientific community to be spurious. Tracing back the origin of those tests to its roots, we will find that they are based in outdated medical beliefs. They are mere tools to control women’s sexuality and behavior. The case of virginity tests has created an unprecedented debate about such practice, and produced a state of solidarity with Samira and the other victims. However, the resistance is not only coming from the military institution. Dr. Fakhry Saleh, the head of the forensic authority in Egypt made a statement against the use of virginity tests at the hands of the military and described it as sexual assault, but he stopped short of criticizing the tests themselves. He further added that it’s the responsibility of the forensic authority to check female hymens, and not any other doctors! Furthermore, the Egyptian Medical Syndicate sent lawyers to defend the military doctors accused of performing the tests. I n reaction, human rights groups have sent a letter to the Syndicate urging them to completely ban the practice as it constitutes a violation of medical ethics. The medical syndicate has justified its move as a normal procedure for defending its members. They said that the procedure shouldn’t have been performed by military personnel, rather by specialized gynecologists only! Up until now, the syndicate has not denounced the tests themselves. Despite the presumed independence of such institutions as the forensic authority and the medical syndicate, their history is full of politicization and manipulation by the state. The challenge then is not only about opposing state authority but authority in its various forms.
As the debate about the virginity continues, many questions are raised. While feminists and human rights activists are excited about the growing public debate about the notorious tests, changes in attitudes about virginity and women’s rights are slower to be achieved. As virginity tests have become part of revolutionary jargon, the public position on virginity tests practiced in private remains to be assessed. Until now, women are subjected to virginity testing on their wedding night or on other circumstances to prove their chastity. Using blood stained sheets as proof of chastity is not uncommon in Egypt. The harsher version is where the first “defloration” of a woman is performed by other related women via inserting fingers covered with a piece of cloth to obtain “the blood of honor”.
What Samira did is an unprecedented act of defiance. She is challenging the very systems of patriarchy that the military institution are enforcing, which is probably why the military court would like to silence media coverage on the matter. Once again, the intimidation tactics prove its failure and they makes people more determined to claim their rights. Interestingly, in her public interviews Samira does not use the discourse of women rights and most probably she is not supposed to. Her perseverance in the face of the “council of failure and shame” as she likes to call the military council is an unquestionable act of feminism that inspires me and many others. She deserves nothing but our deep respect and solidarity.
Watch the video testimony of Samira Ibrahim with English subtitles here.