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Virginity tests: Misogyny and intimidation in Egypt

The Egyptian military's use of so-called virginity tests against female democracy protesters in Tahrir Square is part of a long tradition of using sexual harassment as a tool of social control.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2011

The ugly allegations of so-called "virginity tests" being deployed from the torture arsenal of the Egyptian military would be hard to believe if they didn't fit a longstanding pattern among Egypt's security forces: Using sexual harassment and torture centered around sexuality against government opponents.

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Amnesty International broke the news with a report on the case of 18 women detained by the military for protesting at Tahrir Square on March 9. The women were held in makeshift detention facilities at the Egyptian museum, beaten, given electric shocks, strip searched while male soldiers photographed them, and finally administered the so-called test by a man in a white coat. They were told if they failed the "test" – a form of pseudoscience since it can't reliably determine if a woman is a virgin – they'd be charged with prostitution.

The story got a flurry of fresh attention after CNN carried a piece yesterday quoting an anonymous Egyptian general admitting the practice and using the "they were asking for it" defense.

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the anonymous general told CNN. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and [drugs]... We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place."

Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of the military junta now running Egypt, said no such tests had taken place. "We denied it then and we deny it now."

The anonymous general's words reveal a frightening but not surprising attitude for people who know Egypt. His suggestion that if they weren't virgins then they couldn't be the victims of rape is telling, as is his implication that "nice" girls wouldn't be treated that way. Many Egyptians are deeply conservative about the role of women in society, and would share his views that it wasn't appropriate for women to be present at mixed protests in the first place.

Sexual intimidation has long been used in Egypt, and not just on women. For instance, democracy activist and blogger Mohammed al-Sharqawi was raped with a cardboard tube by a state security official in a Cairo police station in 2006. His tormentors were never prosecuted.

But women have more often been targeted in sexual ways. There was international outrage when apparently pro-Mubarak thugs groped and attacked CBS reporter Lara Logan in a vast crowd in Tahrir Square the night Mubarak resigned. But Egyptian women activists on the frontlines had been experiencing such treatment for years.


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