Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 44, 46

Cairo Communiqué

Despite Verdict in "Virginity Test" Trial, Egypt's Samira Ibrahim Keeps on Fighting

By Joseph Mayton

altFive days after an army doctor was acquitted of ordering “virginity tests,” activist Samira Ibrahim attends a March 16 demonstration against Egypt’s ruling military council in front of a Cairo courthouse. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

In the end, soft-spoken Samira Ibrahim saw the doctor who ordered her to undergo a "virginity test" acquitted. It was a bitter verdict in a case that pitted an average Egyptian woman against the hegemony of the military junta. And, in the latest sign of its authoritarian power, the junta won.

The young Ibrahim is not the likeliest of activists, even though she says she has protested on the streets for years. Her quiet demeanor and sense of humor defy the violence meted out against her at the hands of the military rulers of Egypt's post-uprising "transition."

She went forward with the case, Ibrahim said, "so no other girls are subjected to this kind of torture and violence in Egypt." But she acknowledged that it was a struggle—and one the military was up for.

Ibrahim had accused the doctor of forcing her to undergo a virginity test in March 2011, after she and other female protesters in a sit-in at Cairo's Tahrir Square were arrested and taken to the military facility where the doctor works.

Ibrahim's account of what happened next is astonishing, almost surreal, as she described the events a year later, as if they had occurred only days before. At a café in Cairo, she detailed the horrors of what happened to her that day, interspersing her story with jokes in an apparent effort to lessen the trauma inflicted on her and her fellow protesters only a stone's throw from the very café in which we sat.

In front of dozens of other soldiers, she said, the women were forced to take down their pants and allow a doctor to examine them. When Ibrahim asked for the procedure to be done in private she was assaulted, she said, and broke her arm, which was in a cast for four months.

The military court charged the doctor with committing a "crime against modesty" and "neglecting to obey military orders." According to rights groups, these charges meant that, instead of felony by physical assault, the "alleged" crimes came under the category of indecent misdemeanor, punishable by only a fine or imprisonment of no more than one year.

On the next to the last day of the trial, two female prison guards testified that the tests were in fact merely a question of "who is married and who is a virgin."

The women said it was out of "medical concern" for the arrested women, in case any of them were pregnant.

According to the guards, the doctor never ordered any woman to take off her clothes. Instead they asked them verbally who was and wasn't a virgin, then told the virgins to stand in one line and the non-virgins in another.

Human Rights Watch said the not-guilty verdict was more evidence that the case should have been tried in a civilian rather than a military court. Local groups condemned the continued protection of Egypt's armed forces from any accountability for crimes committed against civilians.

According to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International: "Ever since this unacceptable episode, which is nothing less than torture, women protesters have repeatedly faced beatings, torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of Egypt's army and security forces."

A military judge had called on the Egyptian media not to cover or report on the case, saying it gave Egypt "a bad name." But Ibrahim's lawsuit embroiled activists, especially young Egyptian women, who have turned to politics in greater numbers over the past year. Samiha, a 29-year-old doctor from Alexandria who was in Cairo for a training conference at the Doctor's Syndicate, said that Ibrahim has become almost a symbol of Egypt's revolution.

"She is strong and someone I look up to as a woman because she is fighting a power that is so strong," Samiha told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,.

No women's group has come forward to offer assistance to her and the other young women subjected to the tests, Ibrahim said. Nevertheless, many independent activists have not hesitated to show their support, even after the military court acquitted its own doctor of any wrongdoing.

"It is an absolutely shameful procedure that makes our society naked and exposed its paradoxes," said leading activist and former parliamentary candidate Dalia Ziada. "The acquittal of the doctor was expected under the lousy atmosphere of chaos we love," she added, "but what I really cannot accept is the lack of response from Islamist politicians and extremists in general who did not hesitate to file court claims against Alia Mahdy and called for her death when she got naked by her own free will"—Mahdy is the so-called "Nude Revolutionary Blogger" who posted a full frontal nude image of herself last November in the name of freedom of speech—"while now they are dead silent on a case of a girl who was forced to show herself to soldiers and a doctor under the claim of testing her virginity."

For many Egyptians, Ibrahim's case highlighted the divide between the country's military rule and the goals and successes of the revolution. To them the case was more than simply about one woman's fight for justice. It was about justice, freedom and, ultimately, the rule of law—which, they argue, has been broken once again by those in positions of power.

Summing up the dire situation currently facing women, and activists, in Egypt, Ziada said simply, "What a shame." 

Joseph Mayton is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo, where he administers the Web site <http://bikyamasr.com>.

Additional information