One woman versus the Egyptian military in legal battle over virginity tests

One soldier is on trial, but Samira Ibrahim insists that senior officers responsible for her humiliation are also brought to book.

Samira Ibrahim has already won a court ruling that the “virginity test” she was made to undergo was a violation of her human rights.
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CAIRO // When Samira Ibrahim makes a rare foray into the streets of her hometown of Sohag in Upper Egypt or to a demonstration on the streets of Cairo, she has the distinct feeling of being watched.

"I never feel comfortable," she said during in an interview in a Cairo cafe. "The only place I can feel like myself is in my home with my family. Everywhere I go, I feel there are eyes on me. They want me to forget everything and just go away."

Ms Ibrahim, 25, is taking on, under her own name, a battle against the powerful ruling generals. She is the only named plaintiff in several legal cases against the officers who conducted "virginity tests" on 17 women protesters detained by the military last year.

After repeated death threats, she travels only with trusted friends, avoids being alone in public and hangs up on unknown callers. Applications for jobs are mysteriously turned down.

Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the history department of the American University of Cairo, wrote in an essay in an Egyptian newspaper on Monday Ms Ibrahim's lawsuit was "the most significant development concerning the right of women to their bodies and the most important act of rebellion of 2011, a year in which there has been no shortage of acts of courage and rebellion".

"Samira Ibrahim has shown that Egyptian women can defy the systematic abuses of the patriarchal authority that has dominated not only during the Mubarak era but since the military takeover of 1952, if not the founding of the modern Egyptian state in the early nineteenth century."

Her testimony to Human Rights Watch and in lawsuits has provided an important human face to the allegations of brutality and violation of human rights by the military in the past year.

The confirmation of the virginity tests has played a crucial role in the deterioration of respect for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the top military body that has controlled the country since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11.

Ms Ibrahim won her first victory - more than eight months after being subjected to the tests - on December 27 when an administrative court ruled the military had wrongly violated the rights of female demonstrators by subjecting them to the invasive tests.

The next court date is Sunday, when a military court will hear evidence against a soldier charged with ordering the tests.

But Ms Ibrahim said she will not feel satisfied until all the military officials involved are judged for their involvement. The military court is focusing on the acts of one individual and not higher officers she has named as being involved.

"I live with what they did every second," she said, wearing a brown patterned headscarf and clutching her black handbag to her chest as she spoke.

"From the moment I filed my complaint and my case, they have tried to stop me. I saw with my own eyes a general giving the orders. It was planned. They wanted to humiliate us so that we would not protest anymore."

She recounted how she was taken into a room at Hikestep military prison for what she thought was going to be a routine search, similar to an airport search, but a woman told her to strip.

A man then subjected her to five excruciating minutes of examination, where her naked body was exposed within view of jeering soldiers at the door to the room. He determined she was a "girl", meaning still a virgin, and demanded she sign a statement affirming it.

She and the other women were later sentenced to one-year in jail for attacking soldiers, disrupting traffic, being caught with Molotov cocktails and knives, among other charges, but the sentence was suspended and she was released.

A general later confirmed to Amnesty International they had been physically examined against their will in a bid to safeguard soldiers from being accused of raping female detainees.

The judge in the civil case that ruled against the practice said he relied in part on that report. The military has since said it could not carry out the judge's ruling because it had no official policy for conducting virginity tests.

Several of the other women who were tested have told Ms Ibrahim to forget the case and carry on with her life. But Ms Ibrahim said her cause was greater than an individual seeking justice.

"If they aren't brought to justice, this could happen again," she said. "It could happen to any woman."

Ms Ibrahim's case has also been a test of the ability of Egyptian society, where sexual matters are considered taboo in public discussion, to confront sex-related crimes.

"It's not just about standing up to the military, but also the social stigmas," said Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch who has worked closely with Ms Ibrahim.

"The narrative of the people opposed to Tahrir was that these women were prostitutes and having sexual relations in tents. At first, nobody believed her."

Ms Morayef said most of the women who were tested refused to make complaints for this reason.

"This whole thing is about how her personal courage made this possible," she said. "If anybody is a hero, it's Samira."

The ripple effects of Ms Ibrahim's testimony came from the moment she was released. She spent two months recovering from the beatings, electrocutions and virginity test - both psychologically and physically, she said.

After regaining her strength, she showed up to the office of a cosmetics company where she was in charge of marketing to find a sign on the door telling her she was fired. Her colleagues would not return her calls.

She declined to name the company in an interview because she is planning to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

On her way to visit injured demonstrators in Kasr Al Ainy hospital in Cairo on Monday night, several soldiers recognised her and yelled for her to stop trying to destroy the military, she said.

Her solace has been in the support of her family and quiet home life away from the spotlight.

Her father, an Islamist affiliated with the radical group, Gama'a Islamiya, and mother were supportive after her detention but their faces bore the pain of having their daughter subjected to brutality, she said. At the time, her face was swollen and body was covered in bruises and the marks left by electric shocks administered by the soldiers.

"My father's face was very still when I told him," Ms Ibrahim said. "That's how he gets when he is angry. He told me 'history is repeating itself'."

Her father, Ibrahim Mohammed, who works as a contractor in Sohag, was referring to his own incarcerations and torture by state security for his Islamist activism, including one imprisonment after she wrote an essay in high school criticising Arab leaders for their unwillingness to confront Israel over the 2002 Gaza bombing.

Ms Ibrahim, however, calls herself a leftist and opposes the Islamist political parties that won most seats in the elections for the lower house of parliament.

She boycotted the elections because "what is built on an illegal foundation is illegal", saying that the generals' interim rule was illegal and any elections under them were also illegal.

"I still believe in the revolution," she said. "The fires that started it are still there."


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