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'Virginity Test' Case Highlights Challenges Facing Egyptian Women

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Army doctor Ahmed Adel, who was accused of carrying out a forced virginity test on a female detainee, speaks to the media after being acquitted, in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2012.

Army doctor Ahmed Adel, who was accused of carrying out a forced virginity test on a female detainee, speaks to the media after being acquitted, in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2012.

Perhaps more surprising than an Egyptian military tribunal finding one of its own not guilty of forcing a "virginity test" on a detainee, is that the case went ahead at all. There are social, economic and political restrictions faced by Egyptian women, and proposals to advance their rights.

Samira Ibrahim, the woman who lost her case of sexual assault against a military doctor Sunday, not only took on Egypt's leadership but also the nation's deeply conservative attitudes toward women.

Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef said the military rulers took full advantage of those views.

“Samira has had many different battles to fight and also has to deal with the kind of reputational smearing that went on in the media, and in particular, as a result of statements by military generals who, as early as April, went on saying the women who spent the night in Tahrir [Square, protesting], or the women who went to Tahrir, were women of bad morals and ill repute,” said Morayef.

Women took a large part in the 18-day uprising last year that brought down long-time president Hosni Mubarak. But according to political analyst Rania el-Malki, “on Day 19, everything changed.”

El-Malki recalled that women being told at a rights march last year that what they were doing was against Islam, and in any case, it was not the time to talk about any female agenda.

“I think one of the main reasons is that women's issues for decades and decades have been associated with the first lady, with Suzanne Mubarak, with the aristocracy, and that at that point in our history, [it was] basically the reason why the Egyptian people revolted against the situation, against the hierarchy, the class hierarchy that was associated with the ruling elite,” said el-Malki.

The unveiled, cosmopolitan first lady over the last few decades became increasingly less representative of Egyptian women, as more of them donned the veil, even the full niqab. Many embraced the fundamentalism spreading from the Gulf via Egyptian men working abroad and wildly popular satellite religious programs.

But not everyone blames the Islamists for lack of progress on women's rights. Magda Kandil, the director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, defends such traditional Egyptian groups as the Muslim Brotherhood as accepting of women in the public sphere. She looks to the nation's changing workplace, where college-educated women were once guaranteed a government job.

“With the past decade or so, once the government stopped this kind of policy, the guarantee for employment, what we have seen is a very subtle discrimination against women in the workplace because most of the jobs in the private sector have been extremely competitive," said Kandil.

The undemanding nature of many government jobs, economists say, meant that much of the real support structures enabling women to compete in the work force - child care, husbands taking up a greater share of house work - were never developed, leaving women decades behind their counterparts in many Western nations.

Kandil argues that Egypt's new parliament can help, by working with employers and shaking up what she calls the rigidity of current labor laws.

“My hope is that the support of these leading political parties, particularly those who subscribe to Islamic views, will not be about 'We are okay about the role of women in the public office or in leading positions.' They have also to be providing a level playing field for women as far as their ability to seek jobs,” she said.

Political analyst el-Malki also feels that those who govern the country can play an important role in regularizing women's place in public life, in particular, parliament.

“There should have been, in my opinion, a quota for women. And this is something I'm hoping that parliament is going to try to introduce in this first session, to demand at least in the next parliamentary session we would have a women's quota, even if it runs just two parliamentary sessions, for people to get used to the idea that women are in parliament and they have something to say,” said el-Malki.

Women's rights activists say these practical steps giving women more of a voice in Egypt's political and economic life eventually will help give them a stronger, more secure position in its social world. And, they hope, branding female political activists immoral will one day provoke more outrage, and less agreement.

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