HAVANA TIMES, March 24 (IPS) — Fresh-faced Salwa El-Hosseiny had joined protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square when a plainclothes officer grabbed her and dragged her to army officers stationed in a nearby museum.
The veiled 20-year-old claims she was beaten, electrocuted and verbally abused, then sent with nearly twenty other female detainees to a military prison on the outskirts of Cairo. It was there that the army, which has ruled Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, allegedly unleashed its latest weapon to curb dissent — sexual humiliation.
“I was taken to a military prison along with other girls and we were placed in a room with two doors and a window,” El-Hosseiny recounted during a press conference last week. “We begged the female guard to close the doors but she refused. We were ordered to remove all our clothes and were searched while cameras filmed us is order to fabricate evidence of prostitution.”
El-Hosseiny, and other women detained at the prison, testified that a man claiming to be a doctor performed “virginity checks” on the unmarried girls in the group, threatening that those who failed the test would be charged with prostitution.
“The (female) prison guard stripped us and was beating us with hoses,” said one detainee, who identified herself as an unmarried 29-year-old social worker. “The guard said ‘girls will be examined, women won’t.’ I was examined for my virginity by a man wearing a white coat and a female prison guard.”
Rights groups have demanded an inquiry into the allegations of torture and abuse, which were said to have occurred on Mar. 9 after soldiers and thugs moved in to dislodge protesters camped out in Tahrir Square. More than 170 protesters, including 18 women, were arrested in the violent crackdown and taken to the annex of the Egyptian Museum.
Protesters claim they were beaten and tortured by army officers in the museum before being released or transferred to a military prison, where they were subjected to more torture and humiliation.
A joint statement by 17 Egyptian rights organizations condemned the physical and psychological abuse of detainees, and said the participation of doctors in these acts was a flagrant violation of medical ethics.
“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.
Dr. Amal Abdel Hadi, head of the New Women Foundation, says Egyptian police and security forces have a long and troubling history of violating the sanctity of women’s bodies to intimidate people.
“This is the first time to hear of forced virginity tests, but using women’s bodies for humiliation is (an age-old) practice,” she told IPS. “It’s not unusual for police or security officers to detain a woman and force her to strip naked because her husband has been caught stealing or is a terrorist suspect.”
She says sexual humiliation is a disturbing yet effective form of psychological torture. It was employed infamously by American military personnel in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, leaving deep scars on its victims and the public psyche.
The 18 female protesters detained on Mar. 9 claim they were blindfolded and handcuffed to walls while military police slapped, whipped and electrocuted them. At least six detainees were forced to take an examination in which an army doctor inspected their vagina for the presence of a hymen, the presumed indicator of virginity.
“Forcing women to strip and subjecting them to virginity checks is very insulting, and the impact of this act can be deeper than the physical abuse,” says Dr. Mona Hamed, a psychologist at El-Nadim Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
Conservative Egyptian society places a high value on sexual modesty and girls are expected to guard their virginity until marriage. The stigma of public nudity and pre-marital sex often leads to suicide and honor killings.
Hamed, who interviewed several protesters detained on Mar. 9, says the women she spoke to said army doctors allowed male soldiers to watch and photograph them during their examinations. They feared their reputation would be destroyed if the photos were ever made public.
Most of the female detainees were tried in a military court on Mar. 11 and released two days later. Several received one-year suspended prison sentences for disorderly conduct, destroying public property, obstructing traffic, and carrying weapons.
The torture and humiliation of these women was intended to “send a strong message” to the community that dissent would not be tolerated, Hamed concludes.
“If a father accepts that his daughter attends a protest, even at the risk of injury, he would not accept her going to the protest if there was a risk that she could be sexually molested, raped or shamed,” she explains.
Amnesty International condemned the army’s “shocking and degrading treatment of women,” and called for authorities to investigate the allegations.
“Women fully participated in bringing change in Egypt and should not be punished for their activism…. (They) must be able to express their views on the future of Egypt and protest against the government without being detained, tortured, or subjected to profoundly degrading and discriminatory treatment,” the rights watchdog said in a statement on Wednesday.
Military officials have denied widespread reports of torture and abuse by army personnel, claiming all allegations were fabricated to “ruin the relationship between the people and the army.”