Egypt's Virginity Tests and the Revolution's Hymen
What if Samira Ibrahim was not a virgin? This question might seem way too personal, but as a matter of fact it is closely related to the public sphere.
When the world celebrates International Women's Day on 8 March, Egyptian women would recall an incident that has been engraved on their memories: the virginity tests that were conducted by Egyptian military officers on female protesters arrested in Tahrir Square on 9 March, 2011. Some of them resorted to the judiciary like Ibrahim, a woman in her 20s from the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, while others remained tight-lipped.
Ibrahim's case drew the attention of local and international media alike. The main discourse used while tackling the issue was based on condemnation of sexual violence that female demonstrators were subject to. But now, seven years later, how can we reopen the issue and discuss it from a relatively different perspective?
The different currents that took part in the 2011 revolution were not devoid of conservative tendencies while dealing with women's issues as several incidents have indicated, including sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in 2012 and what came afterwards. Earlier before Mubarak stepped down, there were attempts to enforce a code of discipline on women, determining how they should dress and act. There were also attempts to strip a large number of women of the revolutionary cloak, including Aliaa Elmahdy.
However, the virginity tests case remains special, since it comprises the clearest example of how a public act -- protesting -- can be intertwined with a personal issue -- virginity -- in the name of honor.
The definition of honor is elastic, yet is mostly based on a myth that a girl's hymen is the only proof that she has never had sex. Only those who did not have their hymen broken are seen as respectable, socially validated and trust worthy members of the society.
Women who had their hymens broken, or were born without any, are likely to become social outcasts who are prone to violence, which can be lethal in what is known as honor crimes.
As much as honor is linked to women, they do not really own it; their families actually do. Through this cultural heritage, it is believed that women's sexuality is under the control of the family and state as well. It is either a source of pride or shame.
Morals, the Revolution and Sexuality
There are two facets of the sexual and personal rights rhetoric. The first is physical violations, which we can refer to as the passive side. Passiveness here means rejection or condemnation as a form of reaction to violations. The second is defending women's right to make any desired decisions related to their bodies, and this represents a proactive approach.
What if Samira Ibrahim was not a virgin? This question is not as personal as it may seem. With women's sexuality under the control of the family, it could be a source of shame
What would have happened had Ibrahim not been a virgin? I wonder how people would have seen her, how her family would have reacted, and whether she would have still filed a lawsuit against state authorities
The campaigns that were launched in solidarity with Samira Ibrahim relied on the passive side, condemning violations and calling for proper representation of women in the public domain. The proactive side was all but absent. In other words, no one explicitly highlighted that women are entitled to do as they please with their bodies in relation to sexuality. Moreover, some campaigners couldn't help but fall into the trap of conservative tendencies. They indirectly used the fact that the tests Ibrahim had underwent indicated she was virgin in order to give her the chastity stamp and frame her as a moral woman who was worthy of support.
This paradox was evidently depicted by Amar Abou Bakr's graffiti emblazoned on the Egyptian State Council's premises. His drawing which supported Ibrahim compared her with Elmahdy, illustrating in dismay how the former was violated an no one paid attention, while the latter stripped naked willingly to garner public support.
This might drive us away a bit from the romance of the revolution, but it remains essential.
From Private to Public
We cannot confirm that the backing Ibrahim received was only based on the virginity test's result and the link between the hymen, and morality and worthiness.
Such an assumption cannot be valid even if we take into consideration that her family is from Upper Egypt, where the typical definition of honor is dominant.
Also, the assumption cannot be validated by the prospect that Ibrahim's father might have supported her only to hold his head up after rumors were triggered by the Egyptian state TV that protesters had been having casual sex in Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising.
However, a legitimate question is, what would have happened had Ibrahim not been a virgin? I wonder how people would have seen her, how her family would have reacted, and whether she would have still filed a lawsuit against state authorities.
The purpose of these questions is not to normalize virginity tests, but to tackle a point that has not been extensively discussed: the relationship between the revolution and women's bodies, and how different civil groups used these bodies to boost and purify the revolution.
In the summer of 2013, a song supporting the Egyptian military made the rounds after the Islamist sit-ins had been dispersed. It starts with, "Those who protected the honor shall be blessed". The song was being circulated among dissidents who recited the same sentence to condemn the military, attaching it to the photo of the young woman who was dragged and partially stripped by army personnel in December 2012 during the so-called Cabinet clashes.
Here, again, female body parts of protesters and revolutionary individuals are used to define honor and physical violations.
I believe the answer to my question can be found in some of the incidents I have mentioned. Egyptian female protesters and activists were not looked at any differently from women whose bodies represent honor in the traditional family context. They too were objectified in the same manner. Even when they make it to the public domain, women would still face all the social restrictions imposed on their bodies.
They have never been liberated from the honor principles or the family restrictions; they are only judged in a wider context, with the revolution replacing the family authority.
We might call it nationalization, or paternalism. We may agree -- regardless of what we would call it -- that this is an extra burden shouldered by women who have been seeking to liberate their private lives from parental principles, only to find the same notion reproduced in the public domain. Therefore, it is fair to say that women's transition from private to public life is in fact nothing more than a draining vicious cycle.