Ending 'Virginity Tests' and the Future of Women's Rights in Egypt

June 29, 2011

After an international campaign and a meeting with Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, one of Egypt’s top military rulers announced Monday that the army will no longer carry out forced ‘virginity tests’ against detained women.

Although this is a positive development, Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s comments must translate into unequivocal instructions to army staff that women are never forced to undergo this treatment again in Egypt.

When army officers violently cleared Tahrir Square on March 9, 17 women were detained, beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to ‘virginity tests’ and threatened with prostitution charges.

The women were brought before a military court two days later and released on March 13. Several received one-year suspended sentences for charges including disorderly conduct, destroying property, obstructing traffic and possession of weapons.

Subjecting women to such degrading procedures hoping to show that they were not raped in detention makes no sense, and was nothing less than torture.  The government should now provide reparation to the victims, including medical and psychological support, and apologize to them for their treatment.

Amnesty’s months-long campaign to end “virginity tests” helped to highlight the larger issue of the marginalization of women in the new Egypt. After being at the forefront of the protests that helped drive President Hosni Mubarak from power, women saw their priority role being diminished. Even as many women activists were arrested and put before military courts in unfair trials, key national committees planning constitutional and legislative reforms were for men only.

But Egyptian women keep showing signs of political strength, and Amnesty International’s Agenda for Human Rights Change supports them through calls for women’s full political participation, implementation of legal reforms to protect women from domestic violence, and guarantees of women’s economic, social and cultural rights, particularly in employment, access to health care and education.

In addition, the “virginity tests” campaign highlighted the need for Egypt to come to terms with the human rights violations of the past, including those done in the aftermath of the Jan. 25 uprising, and paying reparations to families and individuals harmed by these abuses.

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported tear gas was fired in Tahrir Square during a confrontation between security forces and families demanding justice for past abuses.

During his meeting with the Major General, Shetty raised a number of human rights concerns, including one important one that has been neglected in the aftermath of the Egypt uprising: The abuse of Egypt’s slum dwellers, particularly those in several notorious Cairo districts.

Shetty visited these slums and met with people living there, who face harassment and torture from police and whose lives are often at risk because of unsafe living conditions. After meeting with the families Shetty summed it up:

“Although Egypt may be in a transitional period, that cannot reduce the urgency of addressing the needs of those struggling to live in dignity or provide for their families.”