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Egyptian women's activist defies military's 'virginity tests'

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

CAIRO -- Samira Ibrahim refused to be silent. To many women here, that made her a heroine.

Ibrahim, 25, was among 17 women and a score of men arrested by military police nearly a year ago during protests in the capital. As soldiers watched, a military doctor subjected her and other women to "virginity tests," allegedly to ensure they were not prostitutes.

Afterward, Ibrahim spoke out publicly and filed suit against the military.

Because of her public pressure, an Egyptian civil court has ruled that virginity tests are illegal.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher here, is "a big fan" of Ibrahim.

"It's not just her bravery when she made the decision in June to file this complaint," Morayef says. "It was not just that she was standing up against the military ... and calling for accountability.

"There are big risks associated with standing up for your rights as a woman demonstrator who has been assaulted in Egypt."

Ibrahim, whose face lights up when she smiles, has a history of standing up. At 15, she wrote a school essay criticizing the disunity among Arab armies; afterward, security officers picked her up and tortured her, she says.

She insists assaults such as she suffered are an attack not just against women but against all of society.

"Our fate, our destiny is to keep fighting," she says simply.

Tortured, then charged

Dressed in a bright two-toned purple veil, Ibrahim recalls how soldiers forced her to undress in a military prison. "They beat me and shocked me with cattle prods," she says.

She thinks they singled her out for "special care" because she had been arrested in earlier protests and, despite being threatened and tortured, did not cry out.

Guards, soldiers and a military doctor crowded into the room. "For five minutes (the doctor) had his hand in my sacred part," she says. "Some people were taking pictures."

Military police certified she was a virgin and instead convicted her of thuggery, imposing a suspended one-year prison term.

Supported by her family, she publicly accused the military of committing sexual assault. That provoked a media frenzy and some public criticism of her; Islamists questioned what she was doing in public to be arrested. A military spokesman said female protesters "are not like your daughters," suggesting they are immoral.

"My father was very happy that I stood my ground despite ... all these lies against me," she says.

As word of her case spread, she met with former President Jimmy Carter during his visit here in January.

'Aware of the risks'

"Samira is much more of a heroine that you don't see a lot of these days," Human Rights Watch's Morayef says.

She describes Ibrahim as "substantive, brave and aware of the risks she is taking."

Her public stand has encouraged another victim, Rasha Abdelrahman, to come forward and testify against the military's doctor.

So far, charges have been filed only against the doctor and were subsequently reduced from rape to public indecency and failure to follow orders.

Three human rights activists have testified that, on four occasions, military officials described virginity tests as a routine step to protect soldiers from rape charges.

A military court could decide the case today, according to sources.

Ibrahim, however, refuses to allow the ordeal to define her.

"The whole world reduced me to 'Samira of the virginity tests.' ... I am much more than that," she says.

'Opened a sewer'

Perhaps not surprisingly, she has found a new foe, writing articles critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who won control of Egypt's parliament in January.

She says the revolution last year, which overthrew the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak, "opened the cover of a sewer, and all the dirt has come out."

Egypt's Islamists are "dirtier than the army," she says, and "using Islam ... to achieve their interests."

She wears a veil willingly but vows to remove it if that custom is required by law.

She believes the military has allowed Islamists to suppress other factions, especially beleaguered Christians who are about 10 percent of Egypt's populace. She ticks off a long list of attacks on Christian churches and protesters in the past year.

On Thursday, Ibrahim joined a women's rights march in the capital. But protecting those rights will take more than marches or speeches, she insists.

"It is the vegetable vendor in the street -- when the Islamists come and tell her to cover her face (with a veil), she will take off her flip-flop and smack them in the face," she says. "These are the women who will protect women's rights."

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