11-30-2011By By Quinn O’Keefe
Human Rights Defenders
As the second day of Egypt’s parliamentary elections drew to a close, women marched on Tahrir Square to protest the military’s use of “virginity tests” on Samira Ibrahim Mahmud, a female activist. She was sexually assaulted by the military and subjected to these tests during protests in March, as were 16 other women. She bravely called the military to task by taking it to the courts, but the State Council recently decided to postpone its verdict until late December. You can understand why women in Egypt are mad – the court’s delay is a blow to her and all other activists who are demanding accountability in an end to “official” sexual assault against women.
The court’s decision also comes on the heels of the international outcry against the arrest and sexual and physical abuse of Egyptian American journalist, Mona Eltahawy. Mona suffered sexual assault and two broken arms while in custody. Local human rights groups documenting official abuse specific to women activists say that Mona’s ordeal was not unique. Women activists are being portrayed as prostitutes and subjected to strip searches, sexual baiting, charges of prostitution, and outright sexual assault. And unfortunately for military, Mona isn’t letting them off the hook. She has been very vocal about her ordeal and has strengthened her resolve to document other abuse and call for rights in a new Egypt.
To outside observers, it may seem incredulous that the SCAF would allow sexual assault and baiting in custody to continue, especially when victims like Samira and Mona bravely speak out and shine an international light on the abuse. Local human rights organizations argue that it is a carryover tactic from the Mubarak regime to intimidate would-be women activists from joining the public sphere. Additionally, official sexual abuse against women has not caused the same stir in Egypt as it has internationally. This is indicative of the widespread street harassment and culture of discrimination against women that sidelined them since the early days of the revolution.
Yesterday’s march in solidarity with Samira is reminiscent of the spirit of the revolution’s start when women were at the forefront in the thousands, many as first-time activists. Local human rights organizations are trying to empower new women activists, but they say significant institutional and cultural reforms are needed to fight discrimination and harassment to ensure that women get real political space. Sexual assault against women detainees is an obvious place to start, and the SCAF and any new government should feel international and local pressure to do so. Hopefully, the court’s delay is worth the wait.