Egyptian Court Ruling on “Virginity Tests” a Win For Women

January 17, 2012

Women protestors in Cairo. Photo by Sarah Carr

By now, almost everyone has heard the about the 18 women protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square who this past spring were detained, beaten, given electric shocks, strip searched and forced to submit to “virginity tests.”

But courageous action by two Egyptian women has led to a landmark ruling on these “tests” by an Egyptian court.

In July 2011 Samira Ibrahim and Maha Mohamed stood up for their rights and filed a case before the Egyptian administrative court to end “virginity tests” against female detainees.  Ibrahim was subjected to this abuse when she was arrested by the military for her participation in the March 9, 2011, protests that rocked the country.  Mohamed joined the case on the basis that as a protester, she feared she might be subjected to the same abuse if arrested by the military.

The brave actions of these two women human rights defenders led to a victory for Egyptian women and for human rights everywhere when the court ruled last month that the forced “virginity tests” women were subjected to in March were illegal, and ordered that they be stopped.

Scientifically spurious, “virginity tests” are a violation of women’s human rights and are a form of torture when women are forced or coerced to submit to this degrading procedure.

In its ruling, the Egyptian court referenced the human rights guaranteed in the Egyptian Constitutional Declaration of 2011 as well as Egypt’s obligation under international law to refrain from torture and ill-treatment as outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It’s worth noting that Amnesty International’s work provided valuable evidence for the court’s decision.  The court ruling cited the meeting between Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty and Major general Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during which Major General al-Sisi defended the “virginity tests” as a means to protect the army against possible allegations of rape, but agreed that such procedures would not be carried out again. According to The New York Times, “The court found that protecting against potential charges of rape was no justification for violating women’s bodies.”

This decision is a powerful win for human rights.  First, the court ruled that the tests must be stopped immediately, and “virginity tests” will now be considered illegal if carried out on military detention premises.  Second, since the forced “virginity tests” were ruled illegal by the court; the victims are eligible for compensation.  Although no compensation claims have been filed thus far, this avenue to obtain reparation is now open.  Finally, with this decision, a civilian court has ordered the halting of a practice by the military; an encouraging step by a civilian court to exercise oversight of, and challenge abuses by, the military.

Although this ruling is a major victory for women activists in Egypt, the struggle to fully realize women’s human rights continues.  The military continues to avoid taking full responsibility for its actions and has not yet referred any other officer to trial in connection with the beating and torture of the group that was arrested on March 9th. The prosecution of the doctor who carried out the “tests” is ongoing but his charges have already been reduced.  And “virginity tests” under any circumstances have not been outlawed; only those taking place on “military detention premises.”

More broadly, the expectations of gender equality created by the uprising have yet to be realized and women protestors continue to be targeted.  In December, the Egyptian military attacked female protesters during peaceful demonstrations. Seventeen people died in the assaults, most of them reportedly from gunfire.  The women activists discussed with Amnesty International their brutal treatment by security forces, including beatings and threats of sexual abuse.

Although greater political participation has been promised, women have been marginalized.  No women were allowed to be a part of the constitutional reform committee and, with only one female cabinet member, they have received little representation in the new government.  To build a truly free society in Egypt, women must be equal partners in the establishment of an accountable, participatory government with their issues and ideas given equal consideration.

Help support the women of Egypt and women globally by visiting our women’s human rights page to get involved.