In March, Amnesty International began reporting that the Egyptian military had subjected seventeen female protesters at a Tahrir Square demonstration to “virginity tests.” The women told Amnesty that they had been handcuffed and beaten, strip-searched, and photographed by male soldiers, then restrained by female soldiers while a man in a white coat performed a virginity check. The military denied the accusations at the time, but in the past few days, a senior general has confirmed that the virginity tests indeed happened. The general justified the abuse by saying these women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters…and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.” The general went on to insist that the tests were necessary because “we didn’t want [the women] to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place.”
I wrote a piece for CNN.com arguing that while virginity tests are a common cultural practice in rural Egypt (to ensure a bride’s reputation on her wedding night), their use by the military appears to be a new intimidation tactic, sadly consistent with the government’s tendency to arrest and detain its citizens for political reasons, but of course targeted specifically to humiliate women. The article seemed to hit a nerve among Americans, generating hundreds of responses. But how do Egyptians feel about the issue?
Several news sources—including the main international Arabic daily, Al-Hayat, though not the main Egyptian Arabic daily, Al-Ahram—made reference to the “virginity tests.” Among the established media, the Egyptian Arabic daily Al-Shorouk had the most complete coverage and generated the most colorful reactions from its readers. Many of these comments call out the Egyptian military for its hypocrisy and abuse, reflecting the growing tension between the people and a military leadership they feel is forsaking their cause:
“This is a heinous crime against Egypt. Those involved must be investigated and severely punished.”
“Is it not the right of any citizen, man or woman, to rise up against oppressive conditions, even if she is a prostitute? If she has the right to vote, surely she also has the right to protest? Far less logical would be for a prostitute to go ply her trade in a place where bullets are being fired. That’s just how you [i.e. the military] want to mis-portray those honorable revolutionaries who put their lives on the line or those who volunteered their time to clean the pavement of Tahrir Square. What do you say to that?”
“What does virginity have to do with women demonstrating in the street, or even with confirming the presence of drugs in the tent? What do you gain by knowing the woman is a virgin or not? And can’t a woman who is not a virgin also claim to have been abused by you [i.e. the military]? The Mubarak regime intentionally antagonized women in order to break them and frighten them. Are we to assume this will continue after the revolution? Shame on you all! Be fearful of your God! Those at fault must be investigated and held accountable. No, I say. A thousand times, No to this violation of Egyptian women’s dignity. And of all places, in that very square of honor, dignity, and freedom—in Tahrir Square!”
To be sure, some Egyptians feel their country is being unduly singled out by Amnesty’s accusations, or prefer to deflect attention to other issues:
“Come on, Amnesty…giving us a hard time and letting Syria off easy!”
“Don’t they [i.e. Amnesty International] see what goes on in their own countries…Italy, for instance?”
“I mean, come on, why don’t you [i.e. Amnesty International] pay more attention to the crimes of Israel? And I think everyone has seen what the Syrian army has done to people over there? I know that our army is an honorable one. God save Egypt, her people, and her noble army.”
Other Egyptians say that while the virginity testing by the military is a heinous violation of women and the people’s basic human rights, they want to focus attention and resources at this stage on prosecuting the murders of protesters that occurred during the street demonstrations that brought down Mubarak. During the height of the Tahrir Square protests, the Egyptian people looked to the military as a protector of the people against the abuses of the notoriously brutal and corrupt police force. However, opinion in Egypt is turning against the military as suspicion grows about its intentions and its tactics. If the military hopes to maintain any credibility with the people, it needs to hold itself accountable to the rule of law. The Egyptian revolution is threatening to fracture, with the military becoming less a force for stability than a driver of political divisions.
Thanks to my research associate, John Chen, for providing the Arabic translations.