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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.

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In 2005, I witnessed a group of pro-Mubarak thugs infiltrate a small protest in front of the press syndicate in Cairo, and they targeted the women in the crowd. They were spat on, beaten, dragged by their hair, and groped repeatedly. The riot police on the scene allowed all this to happen. When a friend of mine asked one of the cops to do something, he explained that his "orders are to allow this to happen."

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And that's where Amnesty gets it a little bit wrong. In its report on the assaults, Amnesty argued that the purpose of the testing "is to degrade women because they are women." While there is a degree of misogyny at play here, and a broader culture that tolerates serial and low-level sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo by cops and male citizens alike, the real point is to frighten women away from speaking their minds.

The 18 women suffered a horrific ordeal. A few have bravely spoken out. It would not be surprising if others among them avoid protests in the future. But the real value from the torturers' perspective is the message it sends to the rest of Egypt's women: "We will physically violate you and call you whores if you lift up your voices. And we'll get away with it." That would be frightening anywhere, but carries more force in a culture with ideas about family and female "honor" corresponding with chastity.

Men were also tortured on March 9, when Tahrir Square was forcibly cleared. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, currently ruling Egypt, say they're investigating the assaults that took place that day. But the fact that state torture against democracy protesters continues is a reminder of the simple truth that real change in Egypt is a much harder fight than simply removing Mubarak.

There's a machinery of torture and coercion in place, a tradition of using it, and many senior officers and officials who aren't interested in piercing the traditional veil of impunity drawn over that kind of behavior. Though there's been outrage from Egyptian bloggers and activists over the virginity tests, the Egyptian press has been largely silent in the past two days, since the anonymous general's comments were reported. The press also didn't give much attention to the Amnesty report when it first came out.

Under Mubarak, even innocuous discussion of the military was frowned on, and anything that smelled like criticism was a "red line" that editors and station managers were warned they shouldn't cross. Earlier this week, prominent journalist and activist Hossam Hamalawy was summoned for military questioning after he appeared on a popular TV station and criticized the military police for abusing protesters. Two other journalists on the show were summoned as well.

Mr. Hamalawy, who was detained and tortured during Mubarak's rule, said after the meeting (a rowdy free-speech rally was held outside during it) that the military explained it was simply seeking what proof he had for his allegations. He reminded them that he'd already provided a dossier on the allegations to a state prosecutor.

But the overall atmosphere was one of intimidation, and it seemed to have its desired effect. In a later TV interview with the apparently ironically named "Tahrir TV," Hamalawy started to provide some mild criticism of the lack of military accountability in Egypt, arguing that since it's funded by taxpayers, it should be accountable to taxpayers. The host, in an apparent panic, cut him off, said he wouldn't allow such talk, and quickly ended the interview. (After the 6:40 mark here in Arabic).

IN PICTURES: Egyptian protests

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