Egypt’s current military rulers persistently denied allegations that they performed “virginity checks” on detained female protesters, dismissing the reports as false. On Tuesday, however, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) finally conceded to public pressure and informed Human Rights Watch that they ordered an end to the practice.
Still, SCAF refused to acknowledge that they did anything wrong, and that is the problem: Unlawful sexual assault on women remains culturally accepted in Egypt.
Despite their integral role in the country’s uprising, Egyptian women have little legal protection against sexual abuse and violence. This fact threatens the revolution's success and needs to be recognized, as women's rights are fundamental to the democratic process.
An Egyptian military general, who spoke anonymously, made the shocking admission that detained female protesters were forced to undergo gynecological exams to check if their hymen was intact.
Shock further intensified when the senior general did not apologize for the incident, but defended it.
"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the military source 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)."
These arguments defending the practice unleashed a wave of criticism directed towards the military rulers. But while the general’s statements are outrageous, they are not really surprising. His words are not a reflection of the Egyptian military’s credo; they are a reflection of the average Egyptian mentality. In society, virginity checks are culturally justified.
The unnamed general claimed the testing was done to ensure that the detained women wouldn't later allege that they had been raped by the authorities.
The implied notion that only virgins can be raped is no less dreadful than the irony of the situation; the authorities attempted to avoid sexual assault accusations by conducting another form of sexual harassment.
But Egyptian women are no strangers to this sexual harassment. In Cairo, sexual harassment has come to be accepted as just another fact of life. Women are accustomed to obscene comments, lewd noises, and groping (less common, but still plentiful).
According to one survey, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment at some time.
These statistics are staggering. More disappointing is that 53% of Egyptian men blame women for “bringing it on,” even though the study contradicts the belief that women in revealing clothes are more likely to “attract” harassment. According to the study, a majority of the women who have been harassed follow the modest Islamic dress code and wear headscarves.
While the causes of this epidemic have been traced to several factors over the years — sexual, economic, and political frustration, as well as the rise of religion fanaticism — the root of it is women's discriminatory position in Egyptian culture.
Many believe that, amidst all the current challenges Egypt is facing, now is not the time to focus on “trivialities” such as sexual harassment and gender rights. The country has bigger concerns now, like fixing the economy, forming a government, and drafting a constitution. Female activists have been told to focus on political and social rights for the time being, in order to “save the revolution.”
On the contrary, women should speak up and demand equal rights for that very reason. Unless women are no longer viewed as a lesser object and until they can feel safe walking their own streets, the revolution will have failed.
Photo Credit: akoi1pinoit