Sexual Harassment and the Two Finger Test, Egypt’s Tool to Suppress Women

Wednesday 23 October 201904:28 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية

"I resisted with all my strength, but the intent to violate my body and soul was stronger than my capacity to resist. I stood completely helpless. I left her hand tamper with my body without knowing why I was being humiliated in this way."

It is with these words that N.S., a student at a social services institute who has been imprisoned in an 'ethicsl' legal case in Qanater's women prison since 2017, begins her conversation with Raseef22 about physical inspections in prison. According to N.S., the physical inspection begins in one of the rooms at the entrance of the prison, with the warden calling on the women prisoners to take off their clothes and stand naked, before being ordered to "do squats to make sure that we aren't carrying any contraband inside our bodies. It doesn't stop at that, for in most cases they remain unsatisfied by these procedures, and so they grope at our different body parts including our breasts, vaginas and anuses."

N.S. notes that such humiliating procedures are not only restricted to the viewing of female wardens, but all of these procedures "happen in front of male prison guards, in a room with open doors and windows, and in many cases the female wardens call for the help of the male guards to forcefully strip off our clothes if one of us rejects this repeated humiliation."

The young Egyptian woman tries to explain the meaning of physical inspections, stating that the main goal of the practice is to "break" the new prisoners, so that "they don't think of objecting to the living realities that they would encounter, such as being squeezed in a single cell with dozens of others, or being forbidden from leaving the cell and from exercise, or the poor quality of food and the unavailability of basic needs such as tampons, which we have to purchase ourselves at extortionate prices from the prison 'canteen' – or otherwise make do without and improvise a piece of cloth, which leave us open to fungal and vaginal infections, meaning that transmission of contagious diseases between the prisoners is a constant problem."

It should be noted that the Regulation for Prisons No.79 for the year 1961, and specifically its 24th article, acknowledged that "the prison doctor is responsible for all medical measures that guarantee the health of the imprisoned, especially safeguarding them from contagious diseases."

Giving Birth in Jail

The human rights lawyer and political activist, Mahienour El-Masry, who served a prison sentence for participating in protests in 2014 and 2017, spoke to Raseef22 about the suffering of female political detainees in prison as a result of physical inspections. She adds that while the practice was difficult and terrifying for political activists, it does not compare to what happens to female prisoners charged with criminal offences.

According to al-Masry, the most difficult moment faced by prisoners is when they're transferred from their police station to the prison, where they are subjected to "a humiliating vaginal inspection, as well as virginity tests and pregnancy tests which are attempted in horrific circumstances."

Al-Masry points out that the treatment differs from one prisoner to another, according to the "desire of the prison director to make life difficult for the prisoner, and the strength of pressure exercised by political actors in solidarity with the detained."

The physical inspection begins on entering the prison, with the warden calling on the women to take off their clothes and stand naked, before being ordered them to do squats, to make sure that we aren't carrying any contraband inside our bodies
the most difficult moment faced by prisoners is when they're transferred from a police station, they are subjected to a humiliating vaginal inspection, as well as virginity tests and pregnancy tests which are attempted in horrific circumstances.

Al-Masry proceeds to explain the nature of physical inspections in Damanhour prison in the province of Beheira, stating that there is a room specifically designated for the physical inspections at the entrance of the prison, where the newly-transferred prisoners are kept inside the room for an entire day, in which "the prisoner urinates and defecates in front of the warden, and then is asked to go through her excrement to make sure that they did not swallow anything prohibited."

The same process is repeated in Qanater prison, except in an uglier fashion – for "reasons unknown" according to al-Masri. There, prisoners are sexually harassed more than in other prisons, being subjected to torture for an entire night, where prisoners are told to remain squatting, standing up and down and only sitting in the squatting position, and spend the night in the inspection room to allegedly make sure that they do not carry any contraband.

Al-Masri points out that these practices do not differ from the other abuses and violations that women prisoners are subjected to in prisons, where there is an absence of medical care as well as overcrowding in cells; sanitary towels and tampons are prevented from entering, to add to the neglecting of pregnant prisoners and those who are breast-feeding, in a flagrant violation of the law for prisons, which stipulates in its 19th article that "pregnant prisoners are afforded special medical care, in terms of nutrition, work and sleep after they are proven to be pregnant by a medical report, until they give birth and forty days pass afterwards."

The same legal article also stipulated that new mothers and their newborns are provided with the necessary nutrition, suitable clothing and rest – with it being "forbidden to deprive a pregnant prisoner or mother from her designated nutrition for any reason whatsoever."

In reality however, al-Masri notes that what takes place in Egyptian prisoners is the complete opposite of that which is stipulated in the law; al-Masri cites an example of a prisoner who was "subjected to a grave danger while she was pregnant in her final month, she went into labor at night, and we kept screaming for them to take her to the hospital, except no one responded to us for a long time; after the guards arrived, we discovered that the keys to the ward were not with them, and so they went to bring the keys, only for the woman to give birth on the ward in a terrifying scene that put both her life and that of her child in peril, without any concern or interest shown by the management of Qanatar prison."

Rectal Inspections and Cocktails

"I still suffer from rectal bleeding until now because of the physical inspections I underwent." It is in these words that A.Y. began her conversation with Raseef22, adding: "I was arrested because of political activity a year ago, and as soon as I was arrested I was placed in a police station in central Cairo. I suffered the worst kind of misery in the police station, as I was subjected to physical abuse with beatings as well as insults, by order of the director of intelligence and investigations, by other prisoners charged with criminal offences present in the cell. When the press wrote about me and about my deteriorating condition in detention, this man decided to punish me by physical inspection, and so he asked a prisoner charged with theft to strip me of my clothes in front of the detention cell, and keep me an entire night in my underwear."

A.Y. points out that she was subjected to great danger because of the insistence of the prison's management to drink a fatal "cocktail" – composed of water, sugar, soap, milk and oil, which prisoners are forced to drink in order to empty their stomachs, to make sure that they did not swallow any prohibited substances. The drink routinely caused intestinal illnesses.

A.Y. affirms that the abuses of the prison wardens take place under the nose and in sight of the prison chief and the head of investigations, and states that these practices "are not meant to inspect, but to humiliate" – citing her own experience in Qanater prison, where a prison warden insisted on taking off her clothes, and asked her if she was a virgin. She responded that she was, only for the warden to grope her breasts and sarcastically declare: "I would cut my arm [if that is true]. This is the body of a hardcore woman."

Subsequently, A.Y. recounts that the prison warden insisted on conducting a virginity test on her through the prison doctor, and after it was finished and the doctor returned the report declaring that she was a virgin, the prisoner insisted on conducting a rectal examination, putting on gloves and entering her finger into the prisoner's anus allegedly to find any hidden contraband. A.Y. describes the experience as "similar to deadly rape. I still suffer from its effects now."

Harassment Until You Collapse

The lawyer Marwa Hakim recounts to Raseef22 the experience of the political activist and member of the Bread and Freedom Party Abir al-Safti, charged with joining an illegally-constituted organization, and who suffered from personal physical inspections and sexual abuse during her transfer from the public prosecutor's office to Qanater prison.

Hakim said: On the 23rd of June Abir al-Safi was transferred, and she was inspected by being stripped of her clothes to remain only in her underwear and bra, and she was inspected from outside – only to be surprised by the prison warden telling her to take off her underwear. Al-Safti refused, and told the warden that according to the prison code, there are no required specifications for underwear that a prisoner must abide by. The warden initially acknowledged the point, only to return later to insist that she take off her underwear; when she refused, the warden stripped her forcefully, and tampered with her body, putting her hands on her breasts and vagina, continuing to sexually harass her until Abir al-Safti collapsed in front of her.

Hakim notes that al-Safti's lawyer, Ramadan Mohammed, as well as a group of lawyers attempted to record the incident with the public prosecutor, only for the latter to refuse, saying that it was not their jurisdiction – leaving the lawyer to submit a complaint to the Attorney General which has remained stagnant until now.

Harassing Visitors

The practice of physical inspections are not only restricted to those imprisoned in Egypt's detention facilities, but also extends to encompass sexually harassing women visiting their relatives.

Ilham Aidarus, of the Bread and Freedom party, told Raseef22: What is happening in prisons from abuses has become a terrifying matter, and asks: If women prisoners are subjected to sexual harassment by the wardens, what happens to the prisoners themselves?

Aidarus recounts her experience with a prison warden in Qanater prison, after she went to visit a friend of hers who was a political detainee. According to Aidarus: "She kept feeling up my body before pinching me around my vagina and smiling. I thought of making an objection or raising a complaint, but I remembered that my friend was in their hands and doing so could damage her, so I stayed silent."

Meanwhile, the lawyer Aziza al-Tawil affirms to Raseef22 that the women imprisoned in Egyptian prisons suffer the worst kind of treatment, both in terms of physical examinations as well as their rights and obligations supposedly safeguarded in the constitution and Egyptian law.

Al-Tawil points out that despite the presence of other mechanisms which could be used for inspections, such as Sonar, CT Scans and other equipment and technology, there is an insistence by the prison authorities to use primitive and illegal inspection methods whose main aim is to harm the prisoner psychologically and physically.

Al-Tawil further affirms that such measures as virginity tests, physical inspections and violating the prisoners' private reproductive parts violate all constitutions and consecutive laws that affirm that the dignity of those who are imprisoned must be preserved, that they are not to be harmed physically or psychologically, and that they should not be imprisoned except in designated centers of detention which are suitable according to humane and medical standards. Furthermore, the law subjugated all places of detention and prisons to judicial supervision, and prohibited anything that violated human dignity, or which put a prisoner's health in danger. Furthermore, the current constitution criminalized assaults on the human body as an inviolable sanctity, and affirmed that rights and freedoms are affixed to the citizen and cannot be suspended, reduced or constrained by legislated laws.

Furthermore, the explanatory memorandum No. 79 of the year 1961 also stipulated that those sentenced must be respected and safeguarded against humiliation and undignified acts.

Al-Tawil added that the inspection of the bodies of female prisoners and exposing their private parts constitutes a crime according to Article 268 of the penal code, which stipulated that "all those who defiled a human forcefully or under threat, or attempted to do so, be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment."

Al-Tawil ultimately stressed that prisons continue to conduct virginity tests on female prisoners, despite a conclusive ruling by the court of the Egyptian Council of State in 2011 which prohibited virginity tests in prisons as constituting violations of the law and the constitution.

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