Egypt: 'One brave woman's fight against virginity-test ordeal in Tahrir Square'


Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square has been an inspiration to pro-democracy activists across the globe. Now one woman is fighting to make sure the public space, which became the focal point of the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak's government in Egypt, does not become a symbol for state-sponsored misogyny too.

In March, after protesters returned to the square to highlight the slow pace of reform under the interim military government, hundreds were arrested and beaten. And, according to human rights groups, among these were seven women who were slapped, placed in chains, tasered, and then subjected to so-called virginity tests.

An Egyptian general interviewed on an American news channel admitted the examinations of the women's hymens had taken place, declaring: "These girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine... These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square and we found... molotov cocktails and [drugs]." Oddly, he claimed the tests were necessary because, "We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren't virgins in the first place," as though only virgins could be raped.

Now one of the women has found the courage to file a case against the military for sexual assault – something Nadia Khalif from Human Right Watch explains is not just brave, but almost unheard of. Not only is there the social stigma of admitting to such a violation in a conservative society, but the military is still in power and few would be willing to put themselves at risk by taking them on. Yet Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old who works in marketing, said she was forced to take her clothes off before being subjected to a horrifying ordeal. "The person that conducted the test was an officer, not a doctor. He had his hand stuck in me for about five minutes. He made me lose my virginity. Every time I think of this, I don't know what to tell you, I feel awful", she said to an online newspaper. "I know that to violate a woman in that way is considered rape. I felt like I had been raped."

Khalif says the Egyptian media has failed to cover the case because of the military's power. And she believes that the examinations, along with the threats of charging the women with prostitution, were a blatant attempt to dissuade them from joining in political demonstrations.

By Homa Khaleeli