Samira Ibrahim likes pink, Che Guevara, and old revolutionary songs from the '50s. She doesn't like people picking on her younger brother. When she was a little girl, she landed a punch on a bully who was pushing him around.
She hasn't stopped fighting since. On a recent October afternoon, the 25-year-old traveled nine hours by train from her home in southern Egypt to Cairo to meet with her lawyers in a case she filed against the Egyptian military for what she claims was sexual assault in the administering of a so-called “virginity test” after she was arrested in Tahrir Square along with other female protesters.
On the ninth floor of a dingy hotel room in central Cairo, she recounted her ordeal for GlobalPost, sharing the details of what happened on March 9 when she was arrested along with 172 other protesters, including 17 women, as part of a crackdown on demonstrations that reignited in Tahrir Square one month after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down.
The women in the group were herded into police vans, taken to a military detention center on the outskirts of Cairo and ordered to separate into two lines — one for “virgins” and the other for “non virgins.”
Then they were forced to undergo the so-called “virginity tests,” a controversial, some might even say ‘medieval,’ procedure in which women are forcefully penetrated in order to document blood from the hymen as proof of virginity.
The invasive, painful, and often unreliable practice, which in some traditional societies in the Middle East and Africa has been used to ensure the virginity of a bride before marriage, has been condemned by Amnesty International as a form of torture.
“In the virginity test case, I was forced to take off my clothes in front of military officials,” says Samira, whose lip gloss matches her bold pink headscarf, a tradition of modesty for women in the conservative southern Egyptian region, where she was born and raised and still lives with her parents.
He made me lose my virginity. I don't know how to describe it to you. 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,” she says. “I felt like I had been raped.”
Before her March 9 arrest, Samira was the general manager of a prominent marketing firm. Her four-day detainment prompted a military investigation at her office that cost her her job. She still can't find work.
Samira's decision to single-handedly challenge the military in court is rare for any woman, but particularly for a young woman from a traditional background. That her case has the support of her openly Islamist father is even more unusual, and her mother has been strongly behind her as well.
Her father, Ibrahim Muhammed Mahmud, a veteran political activist released from jail right before Mubarak was overthrown, says, “She's so much like me in her nature, so much like me. If we're doing the right thing, then we shouldn't be scared.”
“She has the right to file that lawsuit and demand her rights,” her father adds. “But you know, I'm skeptical of the judicial system.”
Samira's case against the military protests the use of “virginity tests” while she and the other women were held in a military detainment center.
So far, Samira is the only woman who has filed an administrative case in Egypt’s civil court against the military over the virginity test incident.
Mona Seif, the founder of the group “No To Military Trials Without Civilians,” said Samira's decision to file the court case “takes a very strong woman” and “a supportive family.”
“Samira is very strong and her family is behind her,” she says. Of the women who have come forward publicly, Seif says only Samira has filed a lawsuit because many victims fear reprisals from the authorities.
But other women have spoken out about the alleged so-called “virginity testing” believed administered to Samira and others. Victim Salwa El-Houseini described her experience to reporters at a “No To Military Trials Without Civilians” press conference in mid-March but can't file suit because she has no national identification papers.
“If I, Salwa El-Hosseini, had filed a lawsuit, I would not have been like Samira or others,” she says. “People don't even know how far I would have gone.”
Other victims are impressed by Samira's fortitude. “She is a true warrior and really loves her country,” says another victim, Rasha Abdelrahman, a 28-year-old seamstress. Abdelrahman initially filed the equivalent of a police report on the issue, but has not followed up due to emotional problems. Samira, she says, “dreams of freedom.” The two sat next to one another on the bus after they were arrested and Abdelrahman recalls how they shouted political chants through the windows in an effort to reach the people on the streets. “We kept each other strong, and told each other that freedom has a price,” she says.
The Egyptian military is reportedly investigating what happened to the women following their arrest on March 9. Officially, Samira was charged with assaulting authorities, taking part in an unsanctioned gathering, and breaking curfew. She was detained for four days and released with a one-year suspended sentence.
A spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body now ruling Egypt, declined to comment on the details of the case.