Cairo, Egypt – Samira Ibrahim, then a relatively unknown 24-year-old woman from Upper Egypt, didn’t know she would be facing one of the hardest experiences she would ever face when she decided to participate in the sit-in in Tahrir Square on March 9, 2011.
After the military police evacuated the square, violently dispersing protesters, Samira, along with a number of other women who had been at the demonstration, were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched and said they were forced into receiving a “virginity test“, while being humiliated, video-taped and exposed by the military’s soldiers and officers.
Having struggled to put this case in front of courts, a court order was issued in December to stop this practice from being performed upon any other Egyptian woman. However, a military court has recently exonerated Ahmed Adel, the military doctor who had allegedly performed this forced “virginity test” upon Samira. The reaction of a number of Egyptians has been, surprisingly, to blame Samira for filing the case against the military in the first place. In fact, the more surprising factor is that this reaction has been popping up whenever a woman’s rights have clearly been violated by the military.
Army doctor Ahmed Adel was acquitted by a military court in Cairo, accused of performing a forced ‘virginity test’ [REUTERS]
“What made her go there?” is the first reaction when trying to bring up cases of sexual assault, rape, beatings – or the forced violation of a test to prove one’s virginity. Blaming it all on the woman for being present at a demonstration, blaming the “weaker link of the chain”, seems to be a satisfying solution for some sectors of Egyptian society.
As much as, to any sane person, this sounds frustrating, one must take a look at the Egyptian context in order to understand the roots of such harsh, and, allow me to say, twisted judgment. Women in Egypt face three times the pressures that men do: first, from the military regime as protesters; second from the society, just for being women, and third, from all sides for trying to claim their rights to participate in public life. Different pretexts are offered, such as the supposed importance of traditions, culture, and even religion.
Roots of patriarchy
For a long time, Egyptians have been born and raised in a patriarchal culture, where the authority or father figure is the centre of everything: family, work – and, especially, the political regime. This patriarchal society, which perceives women as weak, marginalised beings – and much of the time merely as sex objects – forms and controls the mentality of a large chunk of society, especially within the military institution which is, at the moment, ruling the country.
From my observations, this is the key reason why female protesters are being, most of the time, sexually harrassed and assaulted by the security forces, whether police or army. The objective is always the same: attacking what is perceived to be the weak link of the chain of this rebellion against a patriarchal and authoritarian regime, to prevent the movement from spreading or growing.
Samira Ibrahim fought her case and won a ban on ‘virginity tests’ being caaried out in the future [REUTERS]
At the same time, the authority/father, never commits any mistakes; if it does, no-one is allowed to question or judge it, as it always needs to maintain its “image” and “morals”. Talking about how the authority/father attacks female protesters always invokes the answer that it’s always the women’s fault, as any “decent”, well-behaving woman would not leave their home to protest or to take part in a sit-in. So, what made this woman take part in the protests on the first place? “What made her go there?”
Another important factor in this equation is that, for a long time under Mubarak’s regime, women’s rights were strongly associated in the minds of both politicians and many Egyptians, with Suzanne Mubarak. Adopting policies and passing laws in an authoritative manner, even if they seemed to be pro-women rights, disconnected them completely from any popular support. Therefore, supporting women’s rights after the revolution is perceived as backing part of the old regime.
This is how one may start to understand those unexpected attacks on last year’s women’s march marking International Women’s Day. The reaction was always the same: “What made these women go there?”
Back to March 9, 2011, that day of crime against Egyptian women, when military police violently emptied Tahrir Square. Many women were subject to that “virginity test”. Only Samira Ibrahim dared to report this violation, to challenge the military institution and Egyptian society, and to sue her abusers. The incident didn’t receive much public attention at the time, as swathes of Egyptians decided – consciously or unconsciously – to trust the military and to avoid questioning its actions. The country’s patriarchal heritage played a role in providing the now typical answer whenever this issue was brought up for discussion: “What made her go there?”
The footage of ‘Blue Bra Woman’ being attacked inspired many other activists to join the cause [EPA]
“What made her go there?” was still the reaction when another crime was committed against women in December 2011. Another sit-in, in front of the Council of Ministers, was severely attacked by army officers. Striking photos and video footage have circulated online of a girl being severely beaten and stripped of her clothes by soldiers. The woman, whose face remained covered in the images online, became known to international media as “Blue Bra Woman”. This incident brought the issue of women’s rights to the frontlines of the Egyptian political debate. The Egyptian public didn’t want to believe the army actually fiercely attacked its own citizens, and stripped nearly naked one of its women.
The easy solution for the ethical dilemma was to, once again, blame it all on the women, stupidly asking the question: “What made her go there?”
Patriarchal political representation of power is the largest factor in the ongoing marginalisation of women. The fact was that Egyptian women played a key role during the 18 days of revolution, and were always present and active in Tahrir Square; being present in the square’s centre with their families and children, providing medical care for the injured and supplies for the protesters at the sit-in, protesting and being beaten harshly by the security forces, choking on tear gas – and even dying to live in a free, democratic country.
But this struggle wasn’t translated, after Mubarak’s fall, to a specific feminist agenda – which would have linked the values of the revolution (bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity) with the demands of the masses of Egyptian women. Therefore, the demands of Egyptian women, the highest of which being the right to bodily integrity, the right to personal safety, and the right to walk freely on the streets, quickly faded away, and were ignored by most political and social actors, including many women themselves, being viewed as partial and unimportant in the grander scheme of the revolution.
The revolution continues
Ignoring the presence of women and their right to participate in public life was clearly reflected, for example, in the parliamentary elections. Most of the political parties, both Islamist and secular, preferred not to put women in advanced positions on their electoral lists, which would have guaranteed the greatest number of seats for women in parliament. The result was a parliament with fewer than one per cent of women members.
The exposing of Blue Bra Woman’s underwear and Samira Ibrahim’s lawsuit seem to have taken a few steps along the road of breaking that patriarchal mentality. The social and political actors believing in the revolution have started to gradually believe that women’s rights are an integral, indivisible demand of the revolution, especially given the struggle of amazing women and girls such as Samira. Her lawsuit against the army officer who violated her was, unquestionably, looked upon by the forces of the revolution as a struggle against military rule, as a battle in their own war.
The military court did not convict the doctor who violated Samira. She may have lost her case, but her struggle, in my opinion, is a step towards linking the revolutionary agenda with women’s issues, and created awareness and discussion about those issues, as well as helping to inspiring the revolutionary forces that the fight against dictatorship and patriarchal authority is the same fight, and is still ongoing, that the revolution continues.
What made her go there? The question remains. But the reply is clear: “She went there to demand her right to live in a free country.”
Habiba Mohsen is a political researcher at the Arab Forum for Alternatives, and holds a master’s degree in political science from Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, Lebanon.