Published in Egypt Independent on March 23, 2012
On 11 March, a military court acquitted a former military doctor accused of conducting the infamous “virginity tests” on a number of women who had been detained by the military in March of last year. The case was brought by a 25-year old woman, Samira Ibrahim, who was among those on whom these degrading and humiliating tests had been conducted. Immediately after hearing the verdict, Ibrahim collapsed in tears, considering it a travesty of justice. Soon thereafter, however, she decided to take her case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, having exhausted all domestic remedies.
Ibrahim might have lost this round of litigation, and the road ahead for her is tough and uncertain. Still, by suing the military for conducting these disgraceful tests, she has already inflicted a serious moral defeat on the Egyptian army, and has done more than anyone else to uncover the deeply flawed manner in which the Egyptian state ― not only the Egyptian military ― has been behaving toward its citizens. As such, I consider Samira Ibrahim’s courage in suing the Egyptian military and her insistence on seeking justice to constitute the single most important revolutionary act that we have witnessed over the past year.
Samira Ibrahim’s actions gain more significance if we realize that the army’s despicable acts are symptomatic of a pattern inherent in the very foundation of the modern Egyptian state, and not a mere reflection of something that had gone wrong during Mubarak’s reign or even since the 1952 coup. For these tests have a longer history in Egypt, and can in fact be traced all the way back to the nineteenth century.
In 1832, Egypt opened its first school for girls. It was known as the School of Midwives and was attached to a new hospital located in the Azbakiya district close to present-day Ataba Square. During their four years of study, the female students learned the principles of modern medical science, including obstetrics, pre- and post-natal care, dressing wounds, cauterization, vaccination, scarification, cupping and the application of leeches.
The school’s leading role in teaching modern sciences to girls attracted the attention of historians, who hailed it as one of the most important foundations of the nineteenth century nahda (renaissance) and one of Mehmed Ali Pasha’s many benefactions.
Intrigued, I decided to study this school closely. For the nearly five years I spent at the National Archives of Egypt, I combed through documents pertaining to the school and managed to collect much information about its history: the names of its students, their backgrounds, the courses they studied, their teachers, the textbooks assigned to them and, more importantly, the various duties and responsibilities assigned to them upon graduation.
The picture that was thus revealed forced me to reach a different conclusion than that reached by other historians. Significantly, I concluded that the school was not established with the purpose of disseminating knowledge, let alone “empowering women,” as some scholars had asserted; rather, its main purpose was to serve the new army founded by Mehmed Ali a few years earlier.
The association between a midwifery school and the army may at first seem strange; however, school documents reveal a clear link. Aware of the heavy demand his expansionist policies would pose on Egypt’s population, Mehmed Ali worked hard to boost Egypt’s manpower. He was specifically concerned about the high infant mortality rate caused by smallpox, and was determined to found a cadre of medical professionals who could enter Egyptian homes to vaccinate children against the disease. He therefore accepted the advice of his French chief medical advisor, Clot Bey, regarding the necessity of training women to perform this task.
The prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers of his newly founded army was another reason for Mehmed Ali to listen to Clot Bey’s advice that female prostitutes were the main reason behind the spread of STDs among the rank-and-file. Accordingly, the newly graduated “midwives” were entrusted with the important task of regularly conducting medical tests on these prostitutes, of whom “one woman was enough to infect a hundred men,” as Clot Bey opined in one of his letters.
Most significantly, the school’s graduates effectively became a tool offered by the state for society to impose tight control over women’s bodies. For one of the most important duties entrusted to these young women was to work as forensic doctors in police stations. There, they examined deceased women’s bodies to determine the cause of death. However, they also performed virginity tests on girls whose male relatives dragged them to police stations on suspicion of having had extra-marital sex. They did so aiming to receive an official document issued by the resident female doctor and use it to bring charges against the man they suspected had “torn their daughter’s hymen.” Police records are replete with cases in which the female medical practitioner used degrading phrases, such as “She was found to have been previously used,” and “The hymen was torn a long time ago.”
Using state institutions to ascertain women’s virginity, therefore, is not a new practice. Sadly, such a despicable practice has an old, venerable history in our country. What makes matters even worse is that the comparison with the nineteenth century practice shows how far we have deteriorated. For at least during the nineteenth century, it was women who conducted these disgraceful virginity tests, whereas now it is male doctors who do so. Also in the nineteenth century the parties to such legal conflicts were of equal status: both the male relatives of the girl in question and the man suspected to have taken her virginity. The aim was to get financial compensation for their “damaged goods.” Now, however, there is a huge disparity in power between the concerned parties: On the one hand, we have Samira Ibrahim with her naked body; on the other, the army with its weapons, its equipment, its laws, its unlimited wealth and its patriarchal logic. The aim is to humiliate Samira Ibrahim and others like her who dare to defy the military and march against it in street protests.
Despite these apparent differences, both moments share the same debased patriarchal logic that sees a woman only as a body and equates her honor with an intact hymen. It is this logic which generals Ismail Etman and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ― both members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces at the time, though Etman has since been dismissed ― expressed, Etman in March 2011 when he said, “These boys and girls have been sleeping with each other in Tahrir,” and Sisi when he said three months later that the army felt obliged to conduct these virginity tests in order to defend itself against possible legal accusations of rape. It is as if these two generals were saying that since these women have no honor, given their sleeping around with men in Tahrir, then they would not object to being subjected to these tests, tests that we need to conduct to prove our own honor against malicious accusations of rape.
Samira Ibrahim’s insistence on suing the army is therefore the strongest refutation to this debased logic. It is as if she is telling the army: “By taking to the streets and demonstrating against you, we stress our honor and uphold our dignity. As for you, you have lost whatever honor you might have had when you allowed yourselves to violate the sanctity of our bodies and subject us to these tests. Our bodies, our selves. As for you, you have no honor and no dignity.”