At least 18 women were captured and held in military detention after army officers violently cleared Cairo's Tahrir Square on March 9, nearly a month after pro-democracy protesters ousted President Hosni Mubarak from power. After their release days later, several of them complained to Amnesty International about their treatment. The human rights group issued a public report on the allegations Wednesday, calling on the Egyptian government to investigate such claims of torture.
One of the women is Salwa Hosseini, 20, who said she was arrested and taken to a military prison where she and other women were forced to take off all their clothes. They were searched by a female prison guard, she said, but male soldiers were able to look inside through two open doors and a window -- and snap photos of the degraded prisoners. In a different room, she said, a man in a white lab coat subjected them to "virginity tests" and threatened that those who didn't "pass" would be charged with prostitution.
For one of the girls who claimed to be a virgin, the test purportedly declared otherwise -- and she was then tortured with beatings and electric shocks.
"Forcing women to have 'virginity tests' is utterly unacceptable," Amnesty International said. "Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women. All members of the medical profession must refuse to take part in such so-called 'tests.'"
Amnesty continued: "Women and girls must be able to express their views on the future of Egypt and protest against the government without being detained, tortured or subjected to profoundly degrading and discriminatory treatment."
Some of the alleged beatings outlined by Amnesty International even took place inside an annex of the famed Egyptian Museum, where thousands of the country's most precious antiquities are housed. An Egyptian journalist detained along with some of the victims, Rasha Azeb, said she heard the screams of women being tortured and given electric shocks inside the museum. The building was also looted during violent clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces in February.
On Monday, 16 Arab and Egyptian rights groups sent a letter to Egypt's Health Ministry urging an investigation into the alleged conduct by Egyptian doctors, soldiers and officers. The letter, excerpted by the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, accused them of "violating the sanctity of the human self and human body."
One of the signatories, Aida Saif el Dawla, who co-founded the El Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, laughed off the idea that the Egyptian government might actually do something about the abuse. "Of course not," she told the newspaper. "But there is always somebody who knows somebody on the military council, and from that we hear them say they don't have any idea of what was happening in the military prison."
El Dawla's group said it too gathered testimony similar to the complaints published by Amnesty International.
In Egypt, many women face diminished chances of getting married if their "honor" is not intact. Surgical procedures to "restore" a woman's virginity are common in Egypt and across the Muslim world, as are products that claim to help women fake their virginity and make it seem as if they are having sexual intercourse for the first time.
Serious crime is relatively scant in Cairo, a city of 20 million that has a fraction of the number of rapes and violent attacks of other big world capitals. But sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, where poverty and sexual repression amid conservative Muslim norms have been blamed for misconduct by mostly young, uneducated Egyptian men.
The women interviewed by Amnesty International appeared before a military court on March 11 and were released two days later. Hosseini was convicted of disorderly conduct, destroying private and public property, obstructing traffic and carrying unspecified weapons. Several were given suspended, one-year prison sentences.
Civilians are often tried before military tribunals in Egypt, where defendants are denied adequate access to a lawyer and also the right to appeal. Pro-democracy protesters who managed to push Mubarak from power Feb. 11 have also called for an end to such trials -- a move Amnesty International has supported.