Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Virginity Testing" by Egyptian Army

On March 23, 2011, Amnesty International issued a report that there were forced 'virginity tests' inflicted by the Egyptian Army upon women protesters arrested in Tahrir Square during a March 9 protest. This protest turned violent when plainclothes men attacked protesters, and the Army forcefully cleared the square.

Allegedly, at least 18 women were held in military detention, beaten, given electric shocks, strip searched, photographed by male soldiers and the subjected to virginity tests, all followed by being charged with prostitution. This apparently took place in a Cairo Museum annex, where some of the women were beaten with sticks and hoses. For more details, and both articles on this, see Amnesty International Egypt Reports

My colleague SO reminds me that  Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (my favorite document) is the cornerstone provision of any discussion of torture. According to Article 5 of the UNDH,

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Yet, this is exactly what happened to these women.

On May 30th, 2011, Shahira Amin writing for CNN broke the story that a senior Egyptian general admits that 'virginity checks' were performed on women arrested at a demonstration this spring. At the time of the Amnesty International report, Major Amr Imran of the Egyptian Army denied that virginity tests had been conducted. But an anonymous senior general admitted that such tests were conducted and defended the practice.

I quote from the CNN article Egyptian general admits 'virginity checks' conducted on protesters.

"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."  

According to the Daily Star of Lebanon, SCAF spokesman  General Ismail Etman reiterated the judgement of the women, stating that "there were girls with young men in one tent. Is this rational? There were drugs; pay attention!"

I do not even know how to respond to these comments, as they upset me at so many different and visceral levels. Encouragingly, the response to this outrageous line of reasoning has been dramatic. In heartening news, Egyptian activists have called for demonstrations to condemn the incident. A day of online protest is planned today, Wednesday, to voice outrage against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Ironically, when this issue first surfaced and I raised it to my class, the students, who were mostly women, believed that the women who spoke out were lying. This is a society where women's right to speak out and be heard in political matters is fragile, and emerging, and needs vigilant protection.  Indeed, according to an Egyptian newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, the Egyptian military had the audacity to dismiss the CNN report. Yet, they have "vowed to investigate the matter," whatever that means . . . .

In addition, this morning a report by Rana Khazbak indicated  that Egypt's military prosecutors questioned journalists and a blogger for criticizing the SCAF with regard to this matter of torturing protests. Television anchor Reem Maged, journalist Nabil Sharaf al-Din and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy were called in for questioning on Monday for "allegedly criticizing the military." Sharaf al-Din had alleged that the SCAF is involved in a secret deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamalawy accused the head of the military police of violating human rights. Maged characterized the interrogation as "intimidation for journalists." Military questions journalists

Given that the SCAF has already sentenced at least one blogger to prison for his critiques, and has been actively detaining activists and subjecting them to illegal military trials, these interviews with journalists must be viewed as a type of muzzling of the press.

With regard to the virginity testing matter, the United Nations Convention Against Torture was adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1975. Article 1 of that document defines torture as follows

For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions. 

It seems clear from this definition that the 18 women protesters were subjected to an act of severe pain and suffering, both physical and mental at the hands of a public official, namely the Egyptian military. Further, the convention indicates that

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

Accordingly, on the face of the matter, the Generals' comments that the women were "sharing a tent with men" do not justify this act of torture.  According to the Convention, all acts of torture are offenses under criminal law. The officers involved in this act should be tried accordingly. The convention was written in Arabic in its original text. As a result, all officials in the Arab world should be familiar with its contents. Further,  Egypt is a signatory of the Convention against Torture, and is therefore bound by the same.

According to New York lawyer SO,  one distinction can be made: i.e not all acts of "virginity testing" can be classified as acts of torture. Instead, under the same ambit of the Convention Against Torture -- vide Article 16, some of these acts could constitute "cruel [and/or] inhuman [and/or] degrading treatment or punishment." 

He notes that "The lynch pin for the definition of torture is the "severity" of the intentional infliction of physical or mental pain or suffering towards obtaining information from someone. In some cases, the acts of virginity testing could be considered torture. In others, depending on the facts, the acts could constitute "cruel and inhuman... treatment." Yet in others -- perhaps the majority -- said acts more acutely can be defined as "degrading treatment or punishment" under the convention. Articles 11, 12 and 13 as read with Article 16 (begin with Article 16 first), provide color on potential legal redress these ladies can obtain." 
Turning to the matter of the implicit oppression of women implied by these acts, it is a matter of fundamental human rights that women may participate in public gatherings and express their opinions. Under Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,  "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." The word everyone is usually understood to include women.

I do not even want to grace the General's ignorant and deeply offensive comment that the women were in the same tent as men with a response, but here are a few thoughts. Even accounting for cultural differences in gender relations, this may easily be explained by the fact that it was night, and it was cold. Second, it does not imply that the women were engaged in any inappropriate behavior. Third, even if the women were engaged in so called "inappropriate behavior," however one may choose to define that, that still does not justify torture.

I also want to point out that testing the hymen for penetration is an absurdity. Vigorous exercise or even horse riding can break the hymen, so a young woman who has never had sexual intercourse or any interaction with men whatsoever could have a hymen that does not look "virgin." Furthermore, if the idea was to prevent later allegations of rape, then the police could have simply taken a statement from each woman regarding whether they had been raped or molested by any person in the course of the protest. In addition, we do not know what means these so called tests were conducted, but they sound quite physically painful, and they were clearly meant to humiliate as men and women both watched them be conducted, and the women were photographed by male soldiers during the event. Actually, this situation is beginning to sound like Abu Ghraib to me. Finally, as Amnesty International points out, when determining a case of rape, it is irrelevant whether or not the victim is a virgin.

Dan Murphy, writing in the Christian Science Monitor on June 1, 2011, points out that male protesters have been raped by state officials and that journalist Lara Logan was assaulted by pro-Mubarak operatives on February 13th. These actions remind us that rape and acts of sexual violence are crimes of power, not passion. As the elections in Kenya in 2007, and the violence in the Congo, Darfur and the Balkans have shown us, rape is a commonly used act of war and aggression.

I agree with Murphy, that the goal of this aggression is in part to prevent women from speaking their minds. But I think there is more at stake here. To use an economic lens, this approach "increases the cost" to protesters, both male and female, of opposing government actions. The physical abuse of both women and men by the Egyptian Military makes it more hazardous for women to participate in public assemblies, therefore reducing the number of people who can oppose the current military regime. I think Murphy over simplifies the case a bit, as the independent press in Egypt has in fact been outspoken about these atrocities.

Women in Egypt, the Middle East, and the entire world MUST have the right to protest, to write, to speak, and to express their political opinions. These female protesters have been subjected to torture, and an outrageous violation of the civil and human rights. The Generals' justifications of these actions are of the garden variety "Blame the Victim" style.

These actions by the SCAF to intimidate journalists, and detain and torture women (and men) are part of a pattern and practice of press intimidation, restrictive laws, military trials of civilians and physical abuse of protesters broadly calculated to reduce and control protests and public dissent. We must not tolerate this shocking suppression of the freedom to peaceably assemble.


  1. An excellent post. What is also shocking is the silence of western powers particularly the US on this and other abuses by the military. A silence that was made more deafening by clintons recent comments regarding "due process" being followed in Mubarak's trials. Only in his?

  2. So this is a test of Shariah law, and fiqh. Any serious system of laws, written by adults, would require the soldiers who did the "virginity testing" and the officers who both ordered it, and who allowed it to happen, to be punished. Even though there are serious requirements that there need to be a number of witnesses, that requirement has been met, especially if you allow the women to testify. The "virginity testing" was, essentially, sexual molestation, and it should be treated as such, and the perpetrators appropriately punished, in order that women can be protected by the government when they go out in public.

  3. Dear Henry, of course you are right. One problem is that Egypt currently does not have a serious system of laws, shariah or otherwise. However, the perpetrators should be tried in criminal court with the harshest of penalties in line with the Convention against torture.

  4. This is not acceptable with all manners. I trust the army to secure my borders , not to do virginity tests. However, the Egyptians are fed up with authorities that are abusing their power that leads to extreme brutality .