By Deena Adel
CAIRO — Samira Ibrahim, who pursued legal action against the Egyptian military for allegedly forcing her to undergo a ‘virginity test,’ anxiously awaits the verdict of the State Council on November 29.
Five human rights organizations are supporting her case against the military and the case garnered interest in the international media. Her case could break new ground for women’s rights, but Ibrahim has been warned by her own lawyers that it is an uphill battle and that there is little in the way of physical evidence.
Still, Ibrahim remains persistent in her fight to make sure no Egyptian woman will be coerced by the army to go through ‘virginity testing,‘ which her lawyers argue constitutes an unlawful sexual assault under both Egyptian and International law.
“I know the odds are against me,” Ibrahim admits.
Ibrahim was among 17 girls who were detained on March 9 during protests in Tahrir Square. “I was beaten, electrocuted, and forced to strip naked in front of male officers,” Ibrahim fights back tears as she recalls the four days she spent in military prison.
Read GlobalPost’s original story: Samira vs. the military
Employing the two legal options available to her, Ibrahim filed an official complaint with the military prosecution to pursue criminal action against her alleged abusers, and registered a case with the State Council Administrative Court to appeal the use of ‘virginity tests’ in all military facilities.
The official complaint before the Administrative Court states that Ibrahim “was exposed to the ugliest forms of humiliation, torture and a violation of the sanctity of her body.”
In a court hearing on October 25, the State Council lawyer denied this allegation and called for the dismissal of the case based on lack of evidence.
Despite the admission of an Egyptian general to CNN that the ‘virginity checks’ were indeed performed on detained female protesters, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) maintains that the military did no such thing, while also informing Human Rights Watch that they “ordered an end to these virginity tests.”
Human rights violations by Egypt’s military
Ibrahim’s case brings forward challenges to the ruling military as mounting allegations of human rights violations put SCAF in the national spotlight. The Egyptian armed forces have been accused of clamping down on activists as well as detaining, torturing and killing protesters.
“We never imagined that we would be spending so much of our time documenting so many abuses by the military,” admits Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Morayef says HRW has been documenting cases of protesters arrested and tortured at the hands of the military for months, so she was not surprised when a total of 173 protesters, including 17 women, were detained on March 9.
“But the virginity tests were a surprise,” she tells GlobalPost. “It was unprecedented.”
Ibrahim is also pursuing an appeal for her military tribunal. She received a suspended one-year sentence before being released in March. “She was the first female civilian to be tried in a military court,” her lawyer Ahmed Hossam adds.
According to HRW, Egypt’s military has brought almost 12,000 civilians before military tribunals since January. This is more than the total number of civilians who faced military trials during the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak and undermines Egypt’s move from dictatorship to democratic rule, said HRW.
“I have to speak up about this and fight for Justice,” says Ibrahim, whose cross-bag is covered with “No to Military Trials for Civilians” bumper stickers.
The five different human rights groups representing Ibrahim legally are: the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the New Woman Foundation, Nazra for Feminist Studies, and the No to Military Trials Group.
Ibtissam Hassan, a lawyer with the Nadim Center, remarks that Ibrahim has a clear concept of what it means to have her rights violated. “Some girls did not understand the concept of “violation” and had to have it explained to them,” she tells GlobalPost, but Ibrahim had a good grasp of human rights law.
A joint statement by 17 Egyptian rights organizations condemned the physical and psychological abuse of the March 9 detainees.
“Torture is in itself one of the worst violations of human rights and to the sanctity of the human body, but the reported incidents are also a clear violation of national and international conventions regulating the medical profession, as well as a breach of the duties of doctors and medical ethics,” the statement said.
Sexual abuse and Egyptian society
While Ibrahim’s battle has received adequate attention in international press, local Egyptian media has given the 25-year-old little to no coverage. “It breaks my heart that international outrage over my case is stronger than that of my fellow Egyptians,” Ibrahim says.
In the moderate yet conservative Egyptian society, a woman’s honor is directly related to her virginity. Anything that interferes with that – even if the woman herself is not at fault – can become a liability for herself and her family. So it remains too sensitive to publicly and openly discuss issues such as virginity checks, sexual abuse and rape.
“Society does not accept such things being aired in public because they consider it too personal and too private,” explains Hafsa Halawa, an Egyptian lawyer. “It’s considered a violation of her own femininity. She was invaded mentally, emotionally and physically as a woman. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but it’s considered an invasion of her privacy to bring her into the public and have her discuss the ordeal she went through.”
Violations against women are therefore hugely underreported in Egypt — one recent report from 2003 found as many as 98 percent of rape and sexual assault cases are not reported to authorities.
This notion is hardly restricted to Egypt, however. Social taboos and safety fears prevent many abused women from seeking help, and underreporting of sexual assault and rape by women is a global phenomenon – in some countries surveys indicate only 55 percent of abused women come forward.
Other victims speak out
Rasha Abdelrahman who was among the victims admits she remains reluctant to talk to television media outlets because she does not want someone to recognize her and “say something that might hurt her family.”
Only a few girls spoke publicly and said they were forced to undergo virginity testing after being arrested.
The female activists were detained on various charges they maintain are false, one of which was violation of curfew – lawyers said the girls were detained at 3:00 pm and there was no curfew at the time.
Abdelrahman filed a complaint against the military regarding the torture and sexual assault she was subjected to. “But that was five months ago,” she tells GlobalPost. “My case has gone nowhere.” Nonetheless, she is determined to fight the system, despite its reputation of corruption.
Her determination to challenge the ruling military is certainly brave, but it is unlikely to achieve results. “I am not optimistic,” admits Mostafa Shaaban, Abdelrahman’s lawyer. “The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will not solve the problem, because they are the problem.”
Hassan echoes the same sentiment. “I think the court will close the case due to lack of evidence,” she admits.
Salwa El Hosseini, another victim, wishes she could take her case to court, but she is unable to gain recognition in a court of law because she lacks national identification papers. “I would have fought to reclaim my right and caused mayhem until I got it,” she tells GlobalPost. She continues to fight the military by speaking to media outlets and sharing her tale with the world.
The girls said that they were separated into two groups: virgins and non-virgins. The virgins were coerced to sign papers in military detention, allowing the military to conduct the tests. They were forced to strip naked and then searched by a female guard in a room with open doors and a window, through which male soldiers were watching them and taking photographs using their cell phones.
A male army doctor proceeded to inspect their vagina for the presence of a hymen. “His hands were in there for five minutes,” Ibrahim, who lives in a conservative city in Upper Egypt, recalls painfully.
Targeting women in post-Mubarak Egypt
Ahmed Ragheb, executive director of Hesham Mubarak Law Center is certain that the violations against women arrested on March 9, aimed to provoke psychological damage.
“The way they were humiliating them was intended to emotionally break them,” he says. “For example, they would invoke the popular revolutionary chant, ‘raise your head high, you’re Egyptian’ and then they would slap them in the face, or kick them.”
“‘Virginity tests’ are a form of torture when they are forced or coerced,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International said in a statement. “Forcing women to have ‘virginity tests’ is utterly unacceptable. Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women.”
The testing contravenes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Egypt signed the treaty which make it part of the bylaws of the country.
Despite playing an integral role in the country’s uprising, women are still struggling in post-Mubarak Egypt. Women’s rights activists are being told that now is not the time to focus on
Women’s rights’ activists are being told that now is not the time to focus on gender rights, and to focus on political and social rights instead.
Even Morayef, a strong woman and a human rights activist, seems almost resigned to the fact that there is a very long road ahead on the issue of women’s rights.
“The best we can hope for is to retain the provisions we have right now and then fight the battle over the next generations,“ she shrugs. “Women’s rights are just not on anyone’s agenda.”
Morayef adds, “That means that women’s rights face an even bigger battle than human rights.”
Additional reporting provided by Kristin Deasy and Laura El-Tantawy.