It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
- Invictus William Ernest Henley.
In a glorious 18 days of massive demonstration in Egypt, 18-million people went to street to demand their dignity and freedom.
On Feb. 11, 2011, Egyptian Ex-dictator Housni Mubarak stepped down and marked the end of 30 years of absolute dictatorship. That night the chant in Tahrir Square changed from, “The people want toppling of the regime,” to, “Military and the people one hand.” A month later, on Mar. 9, 2011, the Egyptian military, which had seized power, had its hand tainted forever when it arrested, tortured and killed protestors in Tahrir Square, but – and for the time in Egyptian military history – forced women activists to go under virginity test.
The virginity test allegations first surfaced after a rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square that turned violent when men in plainclothes attacked protesters and the army intervened forcibly to clear the square. Amnesty International further documented the abuse allegations in a report that found 18 female detainees were threatened with prostitution charges and forced to undergo virginity tests. The women were also beaten up and given electric shocks, the report said.
As was reported in the news, Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that virginity tests had been carried out on female detainees in March to "protect" the army against possible allegations of rape, but that such forced tests would not be carried out again. He also added that the army would avoid detaining women in the future. This was not the only perverse excuse we heard from the generals.
With the help of Karim Reda, an fBook activist friend in Egypt, I was able to get the phone numbers of two of these young women who had lived the forced virginity test ordeal – Rasha Abdelrahman, a 28-year-old college student and Jihan Mahmoud, a 29-year-old social worker. I called Abdelrahman, introduced myself as Ahmed Tharwat, an Egyptian American, doing a TV story about the Egyptian revolution and the role of women. I let her know I would love to talk to her about the (I wasn’t sure if I should say virginity test in Arabic in our first conversation) ordeal with the Military. She got my drift. “Oh, you mean Kashf Elozrayah (virginity test),” Abdelrahman causally said. “Sure, give me your number and I will call you back.”
I was a little taken aback by her forthcoming attitude considering the cultural taboo and the ordeal. I was the one who held back, but, sure enough, two days later Abdelrahman called and asked if she could bring her friend, another young lady who was also a victim of the ordeal, to which I gratefully obliged.
I chose a public place for our first meeting, the famous Groppi Café in downtown Cairo. I took my small flip camera and went to the café on a Tuesday afternoon. The time we set to meet was 2 p.m., but knowing Egyptian time I freed up the whole afternoon for this meeting.
Groppi is an old-fashioned café. Its glory days have passed by – nothing in the interior or exterior has changed since about the 1960s including the spacious entrance, the breeze coming in the open doors, the tall windows, the smiling dark waiter, the broken tiles, the leaky faucet, ceiling fans, and, of course, the man with the tissue in the bathroom. Abdelrahman called.
“I’m in the subway now, another half an hour at most,” she explained.
Of course, the Egyptians use the traffic as a pretext for anything out of their control although, ironically, the subway is the only thing in Egypt now that is working and is actually under control, but once you are in the subway, there is nothing you could do, but wait. It is your fate. An hour later she called again and asked if I could meet them outside the café. I stood up and headed outside. I had never seen them before, and they never seen me. They had never talked to the media or had a presence in YouTube universe. I expected to see broken women in traditional dress. Wandering outside, I looked around and saw none of the kind of women I imagined. Finally, I spotted two young ladies talking, smiling and walking back and forth in front of the café.
“Are you Rasha?” I asked them.
“Are you Mr. Ahmed?” Abdelrahman giggled.
“Yes, Ahlan Wasahlan. Welcome, and thank you for coming,” was my reply.
Abdelrahman was wearing a stylishly modern hijab – the one that just covers the head, and not the face, and a red dress over her jeans. She had an infectious laugh, and did most of the talking. Jihan, another young woman subjected to the virginity test, was the quite one. She had stylish short hair, a scarf around her neck, and magnetic deep dark eyes. Her dress was of a rebellious nature.
“Anything to drink?” the waiter asked.
Everyone ordered lemonade. “There is no lemonade,” said the waiter. “The blender is broken.” The dark skinny waiter said with a shy smile. The Groppi cafe has been known for its excellent fresh lemonade since it opened. It is a very comfortable homey place, where a waiter can give you excuses like this. We ordered drinks that don’t require blender work. Jihan never touched her drink; she was very quiet, and she didn’t say a word for more than 30 minutes. Abdelrahman took control of the conversation.
I first asked them to tell me what actually happened that day of Mar. 9 2011.
“The military wanted to break us, and humiliate us,” Abdelrahman explained. “We were there at Tahrir for the general strike. We thought it would be like all other demonstration.
“We went to Tahrir, as usual,” Jihan explained. “The day was uneventful. Later at about 4 p.m. we found people in plain clothes, started attacking us with rocks, and Molotov cocktails. I had to get a stick to protect myself.”
Abdelrahman and Jihan talked to me in more detail about the most tragic day of their life – about their abducted friends, who were taken away to the Egyptian Museum and had not returned. They went to find out what happened. They were surprised to find themselves arrested, beaten, and verbally abused by military security.
“You are whores, decent girls stay home and don’t come to Tahrir,” an officer told them.
“The beating started,” Jihan said. “I told the officer who I had seen before in another confrontation, ‘No matter what you do to me, nothing will break me tonight.’ This was a challenge to him and he wanted to break us,” said Jihan.
“You are my game tonight,” the officer said according to Jihan.
According to the women with whom I spoke, military guards tied the women to the Egyptian Museum fence like animals, beat and verbally abused them. Four hours later, they took them away to the military jail in El Hexisteb, a military base in Cairo.
“Once I saw a big picture of Mubarak hanging on the wall of the office, I told myself, this can’t be good,” Abdelrahman remembered. “Then the general came and asked if we had any health problems.”
Next, a female jailer took the women to a room, which was missing its door. The female security guard started frisking them, touching them all over. They complained about the overzealous security female guard. “This is wrong, sir,” Abdelrahman told a male officer.
“Either this female guard or we get a male one,” the male officer threatened.
“It was very humiliating,” Abdelrahman said.
The female security asked the women to undress. The women removed just their jackets and scarves.
“No, everything. Take all your cloth, off, even your underpants,” the security ordered them with a firm voice.
“I could see the soldiers and officers standing outside watching what was going on inside the room,” Jihan said. “All this was done by our military; the ones who claimed they protected the revolution,” she said incredulously. “If it was the security police (known for their brutality and abuse), I would understand it, but this was our military.
“I just got rid of an old corrupt regime, to get this?” Jihan wondered aloud.
A military physician, Ahmed Adel, walked into the room, and without saying a word, forced the women to have their hymens checked. A military court later found Adel innocent of any wrongdoing.
In all, 18 women suffered together through a long night of beatings and humiliation. Then the military security took them to the military administrative center where they put Molotov’s bottles on table on front of them and started taking pictures of the women.
“You are taking picture of us, so you can distort our images in your media,” Jihan told the officer.
Then the officer did something Jihan said she will never forget.
“He kicked me so hard. It was personal, between me and him, not a security issue,” Jihan explained.
Jihan and Abdelrahman believed that the forced virginity test was all planned and not just an oversight or mismanagement by a few angry individuals.
“They had higher orders,” Abdelrahman said.
In such a patriarchal society the military wanted to discredit the young activists and the young revolutionaries’ movement all together as decadent young troublemakers.
Then Jihan looked at herself and said, “My clothes have to stay on my body until I get my day in court, but in the jail, I was forced to take my clothes off, and forced to have my virginity checked.”
According to the two, the officers kept humiliating them, telling them angrily it is their entire fault, repeating, “Decent women don’t do this, they stay home, they don’t protest or go to Tahrir.”
“This officer doesn’t read or understand history,” said Abdelrahman. “Egyptian women played a major role in revolution, starting a long time ago, in the 1919 revolution, and Hoda Sharawi with her women rights movement that started in Egypt in the (19)30s.”
I asked the two women if we could meet again at Tahrir Square. There was another Molyonia (One Million Man March) coming the next Friday. We met there at the famous Kentucky restaurant in Tahrir Sqaure, at about 10:30 p.m. The women were charged and energized. Everyone was. This was the day where all the political factions came for one thing; to reject the military mishandling of the country affairs. Abdelrahman and Jihan walked through the square and visited the same places where they were taken away, beaten and abused. This was the first time they came back and talk about the incident.
“This is the tree that I was hiding under when they attacked us,” Abdelrahman said. “I have a vey a great affinity to this tree, it saved my life.”
We walked to the Egyptian Museum, passing all the Salfay tents and banners spreading all over Tahrir. Abdelrahman was very talkative that night, meeting and greeting everyone there. Then she suddenly stopped by the Egyptian Museum fence.
“Here is where we were dragged and tied to that fence,” Abdelrahman said as she reenacted the way she was tied to the fence, standing spreading her arms, her back against the fence as if she were crucified.
Jihan who was a little quite, pointed at a spot inside the museum and said, “There is where the officer screamed at me and said, ‘On your mom soul, you are my toy tonight.’”
I finally asked both of the women how this virginity test ordeal had affected their lives.
“March ninth, 2011; this day was a great honor, and to me it was the first day of the Egyptian revolution,” Abdelrahman said in a very deep, serious voice.
Jihan looked at me with her deep dark eyes, smiled and said nothing. Her look still haunts me. This was their stories, the stories of two amazing young Egyptian women who exposed the Egyptian military – the Egyptian military that lost its virginity on Mar. 9, 2011.
Ahmed Tharwat is a Freelance writer with Foreign Press Fixer, and host of BelAhdan. The show airs on public access cable Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. or on www.ahmediatv.com.