Samira Ibrahim may be a petite, young woman but her strength and determination for justice belies her physical appearance. Subjected to what can only be described as a vile and horrific violation, the now infamous “virginity tests”, the 25-year-old has sued the Egyptian army for subjecting her to such a traumatic and illegal practice. On Tuesday, the verdict on her case was postponed until December 27 further extending her ordeal.
It was back in March when word first got out that 17 females had been arrested in Tahrir and were beaten, subjected to “virginity tests” and electrocuted. There was a huge media and social outcry and though the army initially denied it, it soon emerged that sexual assault of the girls did take place.
Speaking at the court house in downtown Cairo, Samira declined to describe what she went through saying she had repeated the story too many times and she couldn’t any more. And she has, in several interviews immediately after the story first broke in March, described what she experienced as a feeling of being raped.
“In the virginity test case, I was forced to take off my clothes in front of military officials … Secondly, the person that conducted the test was an officer, not a doctor. He had his hand stuck in me for about five minutes. He made me lose my virginity. Every time I think of this, I don’t know what to tell you, I feel awful. I don’t know how to describe it to you … I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape…I felt like I had been raped.”
When asked on Tuesday what pushed her to file a law suit against one of the most powerful institutions in Egypt, Ibrahim replied, “No matter how much I describe what I’ve been through it’s beyond what anyone can imagine or repeat, especially as its been several months since. Just because it’s the most powerful institution doesn’t mean that it’s above the law, the law applies to us all. The revolution isn’t over, it’s still on-going, and every time we find violations we should report them…From now on, any case of rape or sexual assault the victim knows there are legal routes she can take, and the perpetrators will also know that they won’t get away with it anymore.”
Supporting her in court were Samira’s parents – a very significant fact in a society and community where a girl’s reputation is sacrosanct. The fact that her father, an Islamist formerly imprisoned under Mubarak’s reign, is in full support of his daughter and of the decision she has taken in regards to suing the army, speaks volumes. Where others might prefer to keep quiet, not cause a scene and move on, Samira and her parents’ are determined to take matters to the highest level and ensure justice is served and that their daughter’s rights and dignity weren’t violated in vain.
Samira is the only one out of the 17 girls subjected to the virginity tests to file a civil law suit against the army. In a society where sexual assaults and harassment affect more than 90 per cent of the country’s female population, and more than 98 per cent of such cases go unreported, it’s a breakthrough that the young marketing executive has the resolve and strength to go through with her case and the media exposure it generates.
According to Marwa Sharafeldin, a women’s rights and political activist attending the court hearing in support of Samira, the case is vital: “I am here [because I am] against torture, this is sexual assault and they had no right to attack her the way they did. Assaults like this won’t stop until the people start protecting themselves… This is just one step on the path to eradicate such behaviours, its one milestone on top of another milestone to put an end to such violations, so women are treated better in this country and with more respect.”
When asked if the sexual assaults the girls were subjected to could be deemed “intentional”, Sharafeldin was unequivocal in her response. “I personally think it was intentional because it attacks the woman directly, her pride, her sense of being and worth. It’s very degrading and they played on the fact that’s very important in Egyptian society and that is a woman’s dignity. So for her to be physically exposed in front of strange men, they wanted to humiliate her, so of course they knew what they were doing.”
Another supporter also at the hearing was Khalid Mohamed, a 26-year-old male activist. “Samira was violated – sexually, physically as were her civil and human rights. All the 17 girls were, but she’s the one who maybe has the courage to go through with the court case. They were all treated appallingly… We need to get the message out that we cannot and should not allow such crimes to continue, especially when committed by the army – and this is something most Egyptians do not know.”
The sentiment that stood out amongst all the supporters of Samira was that what happened to her was at the hands of the army – the same institute that is currently running the country and which to them is simply continuing the actions of Mubarak’s government. One elderly woman said, “Samira could be my daughter, my sister, my niece, my friend…she could be anyone. If we don’t speak out now and defend ourselves from such actions, then we will have no say, no respect, no rights in this country.”
Sharafeldin added, “We did not have a revolution only for the age old ways of the past regime to continue. Sorry, that’s not how it will be.”