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As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Against all odds: ‘Virginity test’ victim awaits her verdict

Though evidence is scarce, Samira Ibrahim seeks criminal action against the soldiers who allegedly abused her.

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A joint statement by 17 Egyptian rights organizations condemned the physical and psychological abuse of the March 9 detainees.

“Torture is in itself one of the worst violations of human rights and to the sanctity of the human body, but the reported incidents are also a clear violation of national and international conventions regulating the medical profession, as well as a breach of the duties of doctors and medical ethics,” the statement said.

Sexual abuse and Egyptian society

While Ibrahim’s battle has received adequate attention in international press, local Egyptian media has given the 25-year-old little to no coverage. “It breaks my heart that international outrage over my case is stronger than that of my fellow Egyptians,” Ibrahim says.

In the moderate yet conservative Egyptian society, a woman's honor is directly related to her virginity. Anything that interferes with that – even if the woman herself is not at fault – can become a liability for herself and her family. So it remains too sensitive to publicly and openly discuss issues such as virginity checks, sexual abuse and rape.

“Society does not accept such things being aired in public because they consider it too personal and too private,” explains Hafsa Halawa, an Egyptian lawyer. “It’s considered a violation of her own femininity. She was invaded mentally, emotionally and physically as a woman. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but it’s considered an invasion of her privacy to bring her into the public and have her discuss the ordeal she went through.”

Violations against women are therefore hugely underreported in Egypt -- one recent report from 2003 found as many as 98 percent of rape and sexual assault cases are not reported to authorities.

This notion is hardly restricted to Egypt, however. Social taboos and safety fears prevent many abused women from seeking help, and underreporting of sexual assault and rape by women is a global phenomenon – in some countries surveys indicate only 55 percent of abused women come forward.

Other victims speak out

Rasha Abdelrahman who was among the victims admits she remains reluctant to talk to television media outlets because she does not want someone to recognize her and “say something that might hurt her family.” 

Only a few girls spoke publicly and said they were forced to undergo virginity testing after being arrested. 

The female activists were detained on various charges they maintain are false, one of which was violation of curfew – lawyers said the girls were detained at 3:00 pm and there was no curfew at the time.

Abdelrahman filed a complaint against the military regarding the torture and sexual assault she was subjected to. “But that was five months ago,” she tells GlobalPost. “My case has gone nowhere.” Nonetheless, she is determined to fight the system, despite its reputation of corruption.

Her determination to challenge the ruling military is certainly brave, but it is unlikely to achieve results. “I am not optimistic,” admits Mostafa Shaaban, Abdelrahman’s lawyer. “The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) will not solve the problem, because they are the problem.”

Hassan echoes the same sentiment. “I think the court will close the case due to lack of evidence,” she admits.

Salwa El Hosseini, another victim, wishes she could take her case to court, but she is unable to gain recognition in a court of law because she lacks national identification papers. “I would have fought to reclaim my right and caused mayhem until I got it,” she tells GlobalPost. She continues to fight the military by speaking to media outlets and sharing her tale with the world.

The girls said that they were separated into two groups: virgins and non-virgins. The virgins were coerced to sign papers in military detention, allowing the military to conduct the tests. They were forced to strip naked and then searched by a female guard in a room with open doors and a window, through which male soldiers were watching them and taking photographs using their cell phones.

A male army doctor proceeded to inspect their vagina for the presence of a hymen. “His hands were in there for five minutes,” Ibrahim, who lives in a conservative city in Upper Egypt, recalls painfully.

Targeting women in post-Mubarak Egypt

Ahmed Ragheb, executive director of Hesham Mubarak Law Center is certain that the violations against women arrested on March 9, aimed to provoke psychological damage.

“The way they were humiliating them was intended to emotionally break them,” he says. “For example, they would invoke the popular revolutionary chant, 'raise your head high, you're Egyptian' and then they would slap them in the face, or kick them.”

“‘Virginity tests’ are a form of torture when they are forced or coerced,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International said in a statement. "Forcing women to have 'virginity tests' is utterly unacceptable. Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women."

The testing contravenes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Egypt signed the treaty which make it part of the bylaws of the country.

Despite playing an integral role in the country’s uprising, women are still struggling in post-Mubarak Egypt. Women’s rights activists are being told that now is not the time to focus on

Women’s rights’ activists are being told that now is not the time to focus on gender rights, and to focus on political and social rights instead.

Even Morayef, a strong woman and a human rights activist, seems almost resigned to the fact that there is a very long road ahead on the issue of women’s rights.

“The best we can hope for is to retain the provisions we have right now and then fight the battle over the next generations,“ she shrugs. “Women’s rights are just not on anyone’s agenda.”

Morayef adds, “That means that women’s rights face an even bigger battle than human rights.” 

Additional reporting provided by Kristin Deasy and Laura El-Tantawy.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/111121/against-all-odds-%E2%80%98virginity-test%E2%80%99-victim-awaits-her-v