One of the most bizarre and horrifying stories to come out of the protests earlier this year in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the headline that the Egyptian authorities, had, for some bizarre reason, conducted ‘virginity checks’ on female protesters who were detained by the military.
The accusations were part of an Amnesty International report, which said the women were beaten, strip-searched and given electric shocks. They were told that those who were not found to be virgins would face prostitution charges. The 17 women who were detained at the height the protests that led to the resignation of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak were tried in military court and released on March 13. Some of them received one-year suspended prison sentences.
The part about “virginity checks” sounded too strange to be true, which is why the military authorities probably thought they would get away with their repeated denials of the women’s descriptions of the invasive examinations by a doctor and a nurse. But now, a military official — an unnamed “senior Egyptian general” — has come out and confirmed it in an interview with CNN. The jaw-dropping part is that the confirmation didn’t happen because the general confessed it with any kind of regret or apology; instead, he did so in order to defend the practice and offer his explanation.
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said. “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).”
The general said the virginity checks were done so that the women wouldn’t later claim they had been raped by Egyptian authorities. “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,” the general said. “None of them were (virgins).”
The underlying assumption in these statement, and the mentality that it reflects, is astounding. To follow the logic of the explanation: Non-virgins cannot be raped. Once a woman protester’s virginity is gone, all bets are off; she’s fair game.
The good news in this story is that the confession is not being taken lightly by the Egyptian public. Online protests of the military’s abuse of the women has spread across the Internet. And according to the Arab press, there is “wide outrage’” in Egypt following the anonymous general’s remarks. The spirit behind that outrage is a ray of hope for Egypt’s future if the country, as hoped, ultimately makes its way to civilian democratic rule.
My friend Lisa Goldman, an Israel-based journalist who has just spent a month in post-Mubarak Egypt, agrees. She told me that feminist issues are now at the forefront of the Egyptian national debate now in a way that they never were under Mubarak. In regard to the virginity tests, she told me:
The army is being called to account by bloggers/activists, Amnesty International and CNN, whereas no-one tried to make Mubarak and his henchmen accountable for torturing political prisoners. Women were raped and abused by Mubarak’s; sexual assault is an old tactic of intimidation that is used by soldiers on civilian women all the time, all over the world.
The fact that Egypt is a macho country is not a secret. It’s also not a secret that armies tend to be brutal. The virginity tests don’t have anything to do with the revolution or with how the revolution did or did not affect the status of women in Egypt. They’re just another example of men in uniform abusing women over whom they wish to exert power. That happens everywhere. Given all the publicity the virginity tests received, I expect that there will be some consequences for the perpetrators now. And perhaps this disgusting episode will be a catalyst for a real national debate about women’s rights.