The oldest form of gender injustice

A Cairo administrative court ruled this week that ‘virginity tests’ carried out on female detainees are illegal.

Such tests have always been illegal, so the ruling is essentially just a confirmation of existing law. It also seems to conveniently arrive at a time of uproar surrounding the treatment of women activists by the military in Egypt, notably after the brutal undressing and beating of the ‘blue bra girl’.

The cowardly practice of virginity tests is quite obviously meant to humiliate, intimidate and silence female protesters. But beyond that, it also serves a sad reminder of how far Egypt is away from attaining gender equity.

Cairo is, after all, a city where 83% of local and 98% of foreign women are harassed, according to a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

In May, an army general speaking to CNN said this about the tests:

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine […] We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place."

The underlying insinuation here is that only a virgin can be raped. (Ironically, a virginity test being forcibly conducted by a male ‘doctor’ on a naked woman in a room full of onlooking male military officers amounts, of course, to rape).

Many detained women - including Samira Ibrahim, who filed the complaint - also had charges of prostitution leveled against them, thus further demonstrating that in the Egyptian military psyche, there is essentially no difference between a non-virgin woman and a prostitute.

Equating a woman entirely with her sexual history is to remind her that, as a woman, she is meant only to exist as a sexual and reproductive being. This may well be the oldest form of gender injustice.

By performing a ‘virginity test’ on a woman, the military is telling her that she is not a protester, or an activist, or a citizen, or even simply a human being with thoughts, feelings, intelligence and a personality. They are telling her that she is her sexuality.