Egypt’s Game Changers: Samira Ibrahim and the Women Who Speak Up About Sexual Violence

When the Egyptian army performed a “virginity test” on Samira Ibrahim, she boldly sued. How she and others are changing life for women.

Ahmed Ali / AP

Egyptians call the Sphinx “abu hol,” the father of terror. But the real father of terror for women in the country is fear of rape.

The threat of sexual violation has long been a tool keeping women from going to the public square to demand their political rights. In the last 10 years, the number of covered women in Egypt has increased so dramatically that in downtown Cairo, hardly a bare female head is seen. This public display of modesty hides an ugly secret: women, covered or uncovered, suffer sexual violence, unreported rape, and sexual harassment in silence in Egypt, mainly because they bear the shame for such crimes, and can be shunned, beaten, or even killed for them.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, steps forward in postrevolutionary Egyptian women’s lives is that a few women have stood up and challenged the double-threat of sexual violence and shame, simply by talking.

I met Samira Ibrahim on a dusty highway outside a walled military court in suburban Cairo this week, where she was appearing in a court case she brought against the Egyptian army for performing a “virginity test” on her while she was in their custody. Ibrahim is a short, fierce young woman in a bright headscarf and blue jeans, avidly texting on her Nokia. From Sohag, a midsized town in upper Egypt, she sued the army because, after being arrested in Tahrir Square last March, she was fingered by a man in uniform, in an open room with soldiers standing around with cellphone cameras.

When I met her, she was deeply annoyed, having driven two hours through Cairo traffic for a hearing, only to be told hours later that a civilian doctor would have to come in and testify about the test on another day. She’s lost her job and gets death threats daily, and will now have to contend with years of interaction with Egypt’s inefficient and corrupt judiciary system.

Ibrahim says she has no regrets. Her suit—incredibly, encouraged by her father, a political activist who protested Mubarak’s rule for years—broke new ground.

Human-rights researcher Dalia Abd Elhameed, with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, had heard of virginity tests before the revolution from women subjected to them in jail or in shelters, but no one would speak publicly. “We just never had a face, so no one believed us,” she said. “Once Samira Ibrahim spoke out, we had a face. And now, it’s a different story. It becomes, I’m not ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of you.

“Victims are always told, it’s your fault: you were out too late, your dressed wrong. So rape is severely, severely under-reported. Police are not friendly to women. If you report a rape to them, they will immediately suspect you of being a prostitute.”

Prostitution was what the army threatened to charge Ibrahim with after picking her up in Tahrir Square with other women on March 9, 2011. During five days in custody, Ibrahim says she was first tortured with electrical prods. One day, all the women were lined up and asked to identify themselves as virgins or nonvirgins and form separate lines. The nonvirgins—Ibrahim was one—were led to an open room, where a uniformed man performed the pseudo scientific test.

Since filing her suit, a judge has ruled the tests illegal, Ibrahim is nationally famous, and her supporters are constantly twittering her encouragement. She also receives daily death threats.

Virginity tests are only one point on a spectrum that includes under-reported rapes on one end and a virulent plague of sexual harassment on the other. Egyptian women say streets and shops have become obstacle courses of catcalls, suggestive comments, gropes and pinches—a plague that keeps women in the Middle East firmly in their places, out of the public sphere.

Rebecca Chiao hasn’t gotten her hair cut since she last visited a salon a year ago, when the guy blow-drying her hair suddenly shoved his hands down the front of her shirt and squeezed. She went home shaken to the core, and then started a sexual-harassment-reporting website,, which maps reports and sends out hundreds of volunteers to talk to neighborhoods about why it’s a bad idea to harass women.

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Some Egyptians say the harassment—which plagues women in grocery stores, on errands, and at work—comes from sexual frustration in a society where men can’t have sex until marriage and cannot afford to get married. There’s also simple misogyny. “They say it’s about sexual frustration,” Chiao said. “But I don’t believe that. When you have married men and 8 year old boys doing it, its not sexual frustration.”

Abd Elhameed agreed it’s not about sex. “There is gender-based violence from the state, in the home, in the streets. It is embedded in the social norm,” Elhameed said. “There is also symbolic sexual violence: when you have a family with limited resources and they choose to send the boy to school and not the girl. That is symbolic violence.

“Families still tell their boys they are superman,” Abd Elhameed said. “Then in the streets, men see women who are managers, walking around freely. The harassment is a tool they use to devaluate women to where they think they are supposed to be.”

Chiao and Elhameed were among 250 women from all over the Middle East who attended a conference in Cairo on Wednesday to meet with female revolutionary leaders, and to talk about how the Internet can be used to further women’s political hopes in the region. Speakers included an impressive array of revolutionary stars, including Egyptian-American blogger Mona Eltahaway (attending in two casts because her forearms were broken when she was sexually assaulted by a group of soldiers in summer), Egyptian-rights activist Dalia Zaidi, one of the Daily Beast’s “World’s 17 Bravest Bloggers,” and Saudi Arabian Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old, divorced mother who initiated the Saudi women’s driving campaign.

Eltahawy was the keynote speaker. Taking the podium with her forearms in casts from breaking her arms during a sexual assault near Tahrir Square, Eltahawy said banishing fear about sexual violence is the single most revolutionary act women can perform. “We are energized by each others’ stories, and the way we fight back is to speak openly about what happened to us with no shame. Together we overthrow the lived reality that has put women in these situations across the region.”

While Egyptian women led the fight to overthrow Mubrarak, they have been essentially excluded from the political process since. Only five of the newly elected 500 Parliamentarians are women, and an informal poll of 1,400 voters that blogger Dalia Zaidi says she conducted during the elections found not a single person, male or female, who would vote for a female presidential candidate.

The religious parties who will run Egypt’s new government are explicit opponents of women’s rights and political participation, and they get financing from the notoriously misogynistic Gulf oil kingdoms. An Egyptian government committee tracked the sources of funding for NGOs seeking to root out western influence. They announced recently that the largest recipient of foreign aid in 2011was a Salafist charity, logging $50 million from Saudia Arabia and Qatar.

Saudi Arabia hasn’t had a revolution, but Saudi women were emboldened by the uprisings in the region. Manal Al-Sharif, a slender, soft-spoken 32-year-old, was arrested and jailed for nine days for breaking the Saudi rule against women driving cars last spring. Since then, her brother, whose car she borrowed, had to move out of the country with his entire family, and her 6-year-old son is bullied at school about his mother’s audacity.

She’s not backing down. Next month, she and other Saudi women plan to apply en masse for drivers’ licenses to test the claim the ban on female drivers is custom, not law. “When they say no, we will appeal,” she said.

Al-Sharif said she was inspired by a Saudi woman named Aisha, a mother of two daughters, who left her husband because he was abusive and wanted to marry off the girls, 11 and 13. Hiding from him, wearing full niqab, she had no way to get around without employing a driver. Al-Sharif urged Aisha to get herself a car, and she mustered up the courage to have someone buy her one with darkly smoked glass. Aisha remains too afraid to drive herself, so her 13-year-old drives her to work.

Al-Sharif broke down in tears recalling that Aisha never removed her veil when they met. “I never saw her face. But I could see how terrified she was to be talking to me by the way her hands were shaking,” she said. “That’s who I do this for.”

The Gulf Kingdoms’ philosophies were also exported into Egypt via Egyptian men who took jobs in the richer Gulf nations and spread the creed upon returning. Their influence is obvious in the streets of Cairo, where covered, timid women in black are becoming more common and the Utopian ideal of total male domination drains the joy from the once vibrant city of Naguib Mahfouz.

Ultimately that’s why the Cairo women’s rights conference was just a small first step. The nascent women’s movement in post revolutionary Egypt is alone. It needs men and it needs money.

A few brave heroines have taken the first steps to cracking the psychological barrier. But that momentum cannot create lasting change for Egyptian women, when an entire nation’s attitudes toward women and public life need to be changed. “This meeting was great for networking and giving people a stage,” said one participant, a female Cairo journalist. “But these tech companies need to put money into the movement not just meetings.”

Al-Sharif knows well that the rights of women in Egypt are at odds with the goals of her country’s powerful and rich interests. “Sometimes,” she said, “I just wish we’d run out of oil.”