Not like your daughter or mine: forced 'virginity tests' in Egypt

You might have missed the remarks made by an Egyptian general to CNN this week. He was talking about the army's treatment of a group of women who had formed part of a protest in Tahrir Square on 9 March. 

The general, who apparently wanted to remain anonymous, is quoted as saying:

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protestors in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs. 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. None of them were."

Got that? The army was forcing these women to submit to a vaginal examination (of some unspecified kind) for … well, for the good of the army's reputation. These women: they need to be exposed as non-virgins, then we'll have no trouble with them.

Actually, I'm not even sure I understand the general's twisted logic. Was he even trying to pretend it was for their own good? What he doesn't mention is the fact that the women were also beaten up and subjected to electric shocks in an annex of the Museum of Antiquities. The women were warned they could be charged with prostitution offences. (Incidentally, having myself visited the famous antiquities museum a few years it’s deeply disconcerting to hear how it has gone from cultural landmark to improvised torture centre like this).

Combining social conservatism and thinly-disguised contempt for women, I think the general's remarks reflect extremely badly on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Bad enough you're a protestor, is the message, worse still that you're a young woman involving yourself in political matters. 

Amnesty actually reported on the forced "virginity tests" over two months ago. The anonymous general's remarks (since refuted by the top brass in Egypt) have merely brought the affair back into the limelight. What this disgraceful affair exposes, though, is the way that "male" institutions like Egypt's army will apparently fight hard to resist the empowerment of women.

It's looking likely that the fight for women's right to participate in the post-Mubarak political process will be a major new battleground in the lead-up to September's elections. Stay tuned to this blog for further updates on this topic.

Finally, check out Amnesty women's expert Bethan Cansfield on the wider fight for women's rights in the region in tomorrow’s Independent.

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