Earlier this morning, I saw this article from CNN on the virginity checks which were performed on Egyptian women in Tahrir Square during the revolutionary protests which occurred just a few months ago. Shortly thereafter, Amnesty International put out a report, claiming that “female demonstrators were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched, threatened with prostitution charges and forced to submit to virginity checks.” According to an Egyptian general, who has asked the media to keep his identity a secret, the women were selected for testing to ensure that the women could not “claim they had been raped by Egyptian officials.” According to his logic, if the women were not virgins prior to the testing, they could not be raped during the protests.
There are so many problems with this, I am not even sure where to begin.
First and foremost, the fetishization of women’s virginity is occurring all around the world. The obsession with female sexual purity and the negative connotations associated with women that choose to explore and express their sexuality is truly astonishing. This fixation is often linked with cultural and/or religious ideas about gender, which then manifest themselves in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. In Egypt, cultural ideologies about gender are deeply embedded in traditions and actions; for example, a 2008 report from the World Health Organization states that approximately ninety percent of women and girls in Egypt have undergone female genital cutting, a procedure that is inextricably linked to ideas about female sexuality. Female genital cutting is just one way that elders attempt to control the sexuality of young girls; through the removal of part, or all, of the clitoris, this procedure makes it so that women are not able to fully experience sexual pleasure. Although this example might seem extreme to some, there are plenty more examples that come to mind: virginity pledges, purity balls, tee shirts with messages about being “tight like spandex” that are sold to pre-teen girls across the United States, the importance of being a virgin until marriage, etc.
Requiring a woman to share personal details about her sexuality with government officials is a violation of her right to privacy. Information about one’s own sex life should not be subject to sanctioning by the state nor should it be used to manipulate an individual’s credibility.
Also, the definition of virginity being used in these checks is unclear. I am assuming the officials meant virginity in the heteronormative context, meaning that a woman was not a virgin if she had engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse with a cis-gendered male. Assuming that a woman that has “lost her virginity” is not able to be raped is an explicit act of victim-blaming that shifts responsibility and accountability away from perpetrators. Any individual can be raped, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, sex, sexual history, religion, etc. The arguments being made by this anonymous government official are factually incorrect and morally reprehensible.
With news flowing around the world via the internet, it has become clear that government officials, police officers, and soldiers have sexually assaulted civilians during periods of revolution; one recent example is the rape of nearly 300 women by Qaddafi’s militiamen in Libya. As history shows, rape is often used as a tactic during wartime by soldiers, police officers, etc. By raping civilians, these members of the local and national authority are able to exert control and reinforce their dominant position, while simultaneously reinforcing patriarchal, misogynistic attitudes towards women. Therefore, it becomes clear that these virginity checks were being used as a measure to protect the Egyptian officials, not the Egyptian women.
For now, I will wait to see what more information becomes available in the coming weeks. I hope to see more pressure coming from human rights organizations, national governments, and supranational institutions, as this is a complete violation of the rights of these women and must not be tolerated.