Twenty-five-year-old Samira Ibrahim made the seven hour train ride to Cairo Monday night. She is taking the Egyptian army to court for subjecting her to torture and abuse, including to a so-called “virginity test,” while in military detention back in March. Judges had promised to issue a verdict on Tuesday.
Standing on the front steps of a Cairo courthouse, her round face wrapped tightly in a fuchsia headscarf, Ibrahim admits she is nervous. But there is something that gives her confidence. That is the group of about a dozen Egyptian friends, activists and lawyers who came to court to support her.
A young bearded Egyptian engineer named Hossam al-Din introduces himself to me as a Salafi, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam.
Al-Din says he met Samira Ibrahim in early February in Tahrir Square. He has gotten to know her since then and he’s here on Tuesday because what happened to Ibrahim could happen to any Egyptian girl – Christian or Muslim, he says – under this military government. He says, that is not acceptable.
Ibrahim has described what happened to her – in detail – in a video posted online (below in Arabic with English subtitles). But the broad outline of her story goes like this.
Ibrahim, along with 16 other women, were detained during a demonstration on March 9th. She was held for four days. During that time, she says soldiers beat her repeatedly. They subjected her to electric shocks. They screamed at her and threatened her. Then, worst of all, they made her strip so that a man in military clothes could check to see if she was a virgin. She felt like she had been raped.
In June, Ibrahim filed a criminal case against the army. But that case has gone nowhere. So, she is also pursuing a case in civil court, with the help of several human rights groups. They are asking judges to rule on the legality of Ibrahim’s treatment by the military. If they win the case, it could amount to a most serious legal blow to the Egyptian military’s supreme political control over Egypt.
Ahmed Hossam is Ibrahim’s lawyer. In a smart grey suit, he stands outside the courtroom smoking one cigarette after another. He says this case is incredibly sensitive politically. Hossam is not sure which way it will go.
Observers say it is hard to overstate just how much courage it takes for Hossam’s client to go through with her case. Ibrahim is not the only woman who has been subjected to forced “virginity tests” while in military detention. But the subject of sexual abuse carries a powerful stigma, says Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch.
“Egypt remains a very conservative society and even talking about the fact that these virginity tests took place is very difficult for young women, in fact most of the women who’ve been subjected to these forced virginity tests have not wanted to come forward.”
Tuesday in court was a big disappointment. The judge did not make a ruling. Instead the case was postponed until late December. After the announcement, Ibrahim was visibly frustrated.
“I’m not angry,” Ibrahim says. “They’re just stalling, trying to kill my case. But I’m not going to give up.”
Ibrahim’s lawyer said the case is probably being held up because the political atmosphere is so sensitive right now, with the recent violence and ongoing parliamentary elections. “There’s not much to do now,” he said. “Except to wait.”
As for Samira Ibrahim, she will be not waiting for anything. Minutes after the disappointing announcement in the courtroom, she joined a small group of demonstrators and together, they marched straight back to Tahrir Square.