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

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.

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.

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"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.

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."

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).

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