Justice remains elusive for victims of Egypt’s ‘virginity testing’
By— May 24, 2012
It’s been more than a year’s worth of legal battles, and Samira Ibrahim is still fighting to see that justice is served against the perpetrators of her painful and humiliating sexual assault.
On March 9, 2011, Ibrahim was arrested, along with at least 16 other women, in a violent crackdown on demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The women were taken to Heikestep, a military detention center, where they were held for four days. They said they were beaten, given electric shocks, and seven were forced to strip for military doctors who performed what Egypt’s ruling military council (SCAF) calls “virginity tests.”
Ibrahim reported that the person who conducted the test spent around five minutes assaulting her. “The violation,” she told Human Rights Watch, “was painful. He took his time. It was clear he was doing it on purpose to humiliate me.”
Although the Egyptian military initially claimed that no such tests ever occurred, an unidentified general (later named as Gen. Ismail Etman) admitted to CNN in May 2011 that the military had indeed performed them. He provided this explanation:
“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,” Etman said. “The 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.”
Amnesty International, which has called the tests “a form of torture” meant “to degrade women because they are women” said they “exploit the stigma attached to sexual and gender-based violence, and are being used to stereotype and marginalize women protesters, in an attempt to deter these women, and other Egyptian women and girls, from participating in public life.”
Indeed, Ibrahim felt profoundly violated, if not degraded.
“He made me lose my virginity,” Ibrahim told GlobalPost. “I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape. I felt like I had been raped.”
On December 27, 2011, as a result of a lawsuit Ibrahim filed in a civilian court, the practice was banned, with the head of the Cairo administrative court decreeing that what happened to her and the other women was illegal.
However, assigning blame and prosecuting those responsible continues to be a struggle. On March 11, 2012, Ahmed Adel, the military physician accused by Ibrahim of performing the tests, and the only person to have been brought to court, was cleared of the two charges of “disobeying army orders” and “indecent behavior”—the initial charge of rape having been long since dropped. The verdict was based on “contradictory witness testimony” and not only cleared Adel of wrongdoing, but claimed that the tests never even took place. It was a direct contradiction to Etman’s statement in May. The verdict cannot be appealed.
But it’s not like no one knew this would happen. The hearing's outcome was thought to be inevitable by many, considering the case was being tried in a military court. Omar Ahmed, general secretary of the Egyptian Women’s Union, told Women Under Siege that it was “very obvious” that Ibrahim would lose the case, as “the military judge is not independent at all.”
The problem is a common one in bringing justice to women who are victims of military misconduct throughout the world, from Sudan to Burma to Egypt. Akila Radhakrishnan, staff attorney at the Global Justice Center, explained how justice remains out of reach for those in such cases.
“Where military courts have jurisdiction over matters that implicate officials, including those that include civilians, it raises serious questions of independence,” said Radhakrishnan. “In these cases, those who are within the chain of command of the military are tasked with administering justice for serious breaches of human rights by the military.”
Ibrahim has argued that Adel should have been tried in a civilian court not a military court “where they protect their own.” Her lawyer, Adel Ramadan, told CNN: “The Supreme Council ruling the country has been denying everything from torture, killing protesters, and now this atrocious crime of forced virginity tests of young innocent females. We will not accept this verdict."
Ahmed confirmed that Ibrahim will take her case to the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights, a semi-judicial body based in Gambia.
“We have really big hopes set on the international court,” Ahmed said. “They don’t take orders from SCAF.”
Although Egypt has not signed such statutes promoting the protection of women such as the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, or the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), Radhakrishnan explained that as a signatory to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Egypt is subject to the “jurisdiction” of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
“By taking the case to the commission,” Radhakrishan said, “Ibrahim stands a much better chance at achieving justice and receiving compensation for violations of her rights than she did in domestic court, especially in the military court.”
However, Radhakrishnan warns there are some caveats. While the commission has the power to investigate and make recommendations to Egypt to ensure investigation, provide compensation, and take measures to prevent future violations, they do not have binding power—unlike decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights, or the African Court of Human Rights.
And despite the ongoing efforts of Ibrahim and those pursuing justice for her and the other women violated, protesters continue to face sexualized violence at the hands of the Egyptian state.
The first weekend in May, more than a dozen women were detained following a protest outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo. They’ve said female prison guards sexually assaulted them—inspecting their vaginas under in the pretext of a drug search. Male protesters have said they were threatened with sexual assault, and some have claimed that soldiers groped, smacked, and verbally abused them during detention.
One woman, Aya Kamal, has already testified before the parliament’s human rights committee about the abuse she experienced, which included the attempted removal of her hijab, she said. Rights activist Aida Seif al-Dawla, however, has told the media that social stigma is dissuading most of the other women from going public.
Karen Gardiner Dion is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Honolulu Weekly, The Rumpus, Matador Network and (614) Magazine.