Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

Protest against forced virginity examinations, Cairo, 2011

What is this furniture
That speaks of departure?
People take up their folding chairs
And emigrate.

Günter Grass, “Folding Chairs”

Three stories about Egypt today:

ONE.  Women’s vaginas belong to the State. Memorably, in March 2011, Egypt’s army forced 17 women demonstrators arrested at Tahrir Square to undergo virginity tests. One general defended the exams to CNN under cover of anonymity, saying, “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters … We didn’t want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place… None of them were.” A suspiciously similar justification for the appalling abuse was offered on the record by the head of military intelligence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Sisi promised the military would stop inflicting the exams, but said nothing about other authorities. Sisi is president now. The police enjoy unrestrained power. Last night I spoke to a woman in her early 20s, a university student, who was forced to submit to a virginity test this week. She had accompanied a male friend to a Cairo police station to support him when he was summoned under suspicion of a crime. There, officers searched her bag and found condoms. They threatened to charge her as well — with prostitution.

They didn’t ask my consent or explain what was going to happen, just told me that a woman would search me. Then they brought in a woman who worked in [a nearby business] and all the officers left the room. I knew then this was not an ordinary search, because there would be no need to bring in a woman for that — they could have searched my clothes themselves, I was wearing ordinary pants and my blouse had no pockets.

The woman asked me to take all my clothes off. Then, when I was naked, she told me I had to bend over, over a chair. I did it and she checked my vagina. The woman herself was kind: she kept asking if I was OK and trying to reassure me.  She went out, and I put my clothes on, and the officers came back in.

One of the officers said: “Are you a virgin or not?” That was the first question they asked me when they returned. I said, “I am not. I am sure the woman said that to you.” But he said: “No, she told us you were still a virgin.” Then I understood that the woman had lied to try to protect me. I asked him not to blame her. The officer said: “We can make you a lot of trouble. No one is going to doubt you are a prostitute, because you are 20 and for sure you are not a virgin.”

At the end of her interrogation, which lasted all night, police told her she would be released. But first,

They made me sign a paper with the questions and answers they had asked me. Then I asked them to write another paper and attach it,  certifying that they had inspected my vagina.

The officer smiled. “After we do all these investigations, and we set you free, you are trying to put the blame on us! Very well, I can write it. But if I do, it will put the guilt on you, rather than us, and we will send your case to the prosecutor [niyaba]. The shame and the guilt are yours. And the address we have from your ID is your family’s, and if we take you to the niyaba your family will find out everything about your immorality. Is that what you want?”

I felt I had no choice. I agreed not to ask for the paper in order not to be charged with prostitution.

How often do such stories happen in police stations all over Egypt?

"Fear Me, Government": Street art by Keizer, from . Obviously they do.

“Fear Me, Government”: Street art by Keizer, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com. Obviously they do.

TWO. The State decides which bodies are legal or illegal. On November 2, the press reported that in El Waily, a district in the northeast of Cairo, Judge Yasser Abu Ghanima ordered a “sissy” [mokhanath] jailed for alleged fraud after trying to undergo a breast augmentation procedure. Hospital officials, detecting a physical anomaly, had handed the deviant male immediately to the police. Arrests of transgender or gender-dissident people in Egypt are commonplace now. But this one was special. The victim’s state ID and birth certificate actually said she was female. On inspection, though, her body wasn’t good enough for the government.

El-Watan interviewed the woman in jail, and published a story on November 3 which was sensational and sympathetic in equal measure.

She doesn’t know how to live and how to deal with the tragedy. On her official documents it says she is a 26-year-old female and her family treats her as female, but the government, represented by El-Zahra Hospital and El-Waily police station, has charged her with fraud in official documents and impersonating a female.

"A Girl is just like a Boy," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“A girl is just like a boy,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

The woman’s story, if El-Watan is to be trusted, is indeed terrible. She grew up in a poor family of five children in a village just north of Cairo. Her parents didn’t send her to school. At ten years old, she discovered that what she had “in my lower half” looked like a penis.

“So I told my mother and my sister, and they said that it is a birth defect and can be removed by surgery. I lived with it until I reached the age of 18. Then a neighbor called on me and proposed to me. I was surprised that my mother and my brothers told him I am engaged. I asked my mother about the reason for refusal. She told me that the reason is a congenital defect, I am half male and half female.”

Though they raised her as a girl, her family seems to have tried to rein in her gender presentation after she reached adulthood, rebuking her severely when she bought a ring and a woman’s necklace from a jewelry shop. “I attempted suicide more than once after the treatment that I got from my relatives.” Finally, more than a year ago, she cut off relations with all her family except her mother. “I rented a room by myself; I left the house without anyone knowing the reason, except I told my mother and she understood.” She got a job as a cleaner in a plastic factory near her village.

”I support myself after my parents and relatives abandoned me, trying to save money so that I can have surgery. The doctors told me that the congenital defect can lead to diseases such as cancer. My colleagues at work didn’t notice any difference. I avoided appearing in girls’ clothes that are too revealing. …

“For a year and a half I’ve been living on my own. I visited more than five doctors in government hospitals …. The surgery in a private clinic costs more than 10,000 pounds {$1400 US], and my salary isn’t more than 700 pounds [$100 US] per month. … I refused to have any romantic relationships or marriage. … No one knows the tragedy that’s inside me.”

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

The arrest victim, face obscured by El-Watan

Finally, she went to El-Zahra University Hospital, in the Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo, dressing herself in full niqab, and asking for surgery to enlarge her breasts.

“The physician examined my upper part. When I asked the doctor, ‘Will it work, doctor?’ she answered by saying: ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Then they asked me for a urine sample for analysis. It was rejected. It caused a stir of doubts, and the doctor summoned colleagues, and I had to show the lower part of my body revealing I was ‘a girl with a penis.'”

The hospital personnel “ran to report the ‘girl with the penis’ to the police,” according to El-Watan. She was immediately taken to the El-Waily police station. “Prosecutor Wael El Shamy ordered a forensic investigation to determine her gender,” and “assigned detectives to find her family members and call them in for questioning. The prosecution decided to hold her in the waiting room of the police station and not to place her in a men’s or women’s cell for fear of assault.” There, given the publicity, she will probably be shown off as entertainment to guests.

She was “scared and crying” when El-Watan interviewed her in custody. She pleaded for a doctor “with the heart and conscience to cure me.”

“I ask everyone to help me. I am not just a deformity or birth defect. The upper part of my body is a girl’s, with nipples and long hair, and and there are no other abnormalities. I beg the Minister of Health and the National Council for Human Rights to help me to live a normal life.”

Probably, from this account, the girl was born with an intersex condition. Probably she’s never spoken to a doctor who gave her a chromosome test or a clear account of what is happening to her body. What’s striking is that the doctors immediately saw her genitals as a criminal, not a medical issue. With no questions and no sympathy, they sent her straight from examining room to jail.

Sally Mursi

Sally Mursi

Gender variance and gender ambiguity have a varying and ambiguous status in Egyptian law. The famous case of Sally Mursi, dating back 25 years, has become a — the —  lens through which these issues are seen. While a medical student at Al-Azhar University in 1988, Mursi (born Sayed Mursi) made huge headlines by undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, a mufti who later became Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (the highest position in Egyptian Islam) issued a fatwa approving the operation on health grounds; so far as is known, this is the first ruling on transgender issues from a Sunni scholar. The state grudgingly changed her ID papers. But despite the fatwa, the men’s wing of Al-Azhar Medical School expelled her and the women’s school refused to take her; the university defied a series of court orders to readmit her. Mursi could only find work as a nightclub dancer. Other segments of state bureaucracy persecuted her despite her new ID. The Ministry of Culture denied her a dancing permit, the morals police raided her shows, and the government accused her of evading military service, compulsory for men. The Doctor’s Syndicate even expelled her surgeon, Dr. Ezzat Ashmallah, for performing the operation — though he was reinstated later.

So gender reassignment surgery is technically allowed in Egypt, but it doesn’t give the patient a path to a secure legal status. It’s as if the state prefers people in a legal limbo where it can harass them when it likes. The operations are forbiddingly hard to obtain: applicants confront “a long and complicated list of procedures that always end up with the [Doctor’s] Syndicate’s refusal to allow gender transformation surgeries,” according to my friend Dalia Abdel Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Sympathetic doctors still face professional opprobrium, even arrest. In 2010, prosecutors questioned a physician in Assyut, in Upper Egypt, after the Doctor’s Syndicate turned him in for conducting male-to-female surgeries. The Ministry of Health complained that the operations did not produce “real,” biological women: the patient “is still physically a male without vagina, uterus or female ovaries,” a bureaucrat there said.

The state is still at odds with itself over what makes a “real” man or woman. Unsurprisingly, then, transgender issues in Egypt are conceptually, medically, and legally tangled up with intersex issues. Both raise the same questions: what (and where in the body) is the truth of gender?

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Lie back and think of Egypt: A doctor at work

Some Egyptian doctors have staked out their territory where transgender people are concerned, claiming they can produce the truth, that medicine can resolve the “problem” — though their own professional syndicate punishes them for saying so. Similarly, some doctors are struggling to establish their expertise and control over intersex people’s bodies. Surgeries to mutilate and reshape the genitals of intersex infants, widespread in many other countries, seem mercifully less common in Egypt. One reason: female genital mutilation pre-empts them. One surgeon said in 2004:

“Circumcision is an informal law in Upper Egyptian families. In most villages, they circumcise the girl 40 days after her birth. So in intersexed cases, they simply cut off the penis, putting us and the patient in a more difficult situation,” he says. “We then have to start from scratch, constructing a new penis. Female circumcision is a crime that should be banned by all means. As you can see, it doesn’t only damage a girl’s life, it can also destroy the future of a male.”

Yet news reports suggest that in recent years an increasing number of adults like the woman in El-Waily are seeking doctors’ help because their bodies don’t make sense to them.

Here’s the thing, though: The state wants hegemony over physical existence. And it isn’t about to surrender its power over ambiguous bodies to busybodies in white coats. Despite doctors’ efforts to brand gender identity as a medical issue, which at least takes it out of the law’s ambit, trans* people are still criminals in Egypt. In the last year a massive campaign of arrest and abuse brutalized trans* people and mokhanatheen (“effeminate” men). It conveys a clear message. In Sisi’s reborn Egypt, men must be men, not long-haired revolutionaries, not insidious sissies. The state will decide what’s deviant, and punish it.

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Arrest of alleged mokhanatheen in Heliopolis, Cairo, on May 4, 2014, from Akhbar El-Hawadeth

Intersex bodies are caught in the repression. Your ID isn’t enough to make you safe. You may have lived a life conforming to your legal papers, but if your body doesn’t fit your birth certificate point for point, it’s not a “condition,” it’s a crime. Doctors’ duty is to surrender confusing cases to the police.

Sally Mursi told a reporter how, when her gender reassignment surgery ignited scandal in 1988, she and her surgeon “were summoned by the State Prosecutor’s Office,”

“which was investigating charges against us, claiming I conspired with Dr. Ezzat Ashamallah to cause myself a permanent deformity that stirred up ‘social instability and public disorder.’ Don’t you dare underestimate me … I’m as dangerous as any terrorist!”

Egypt is now suffering another state-sponsored frenzy over fears of terrorism, and bodies that stir up “social instability” are demonized all over again. The story of the woman in El-Waily isn’t just a personal tragedy. It’s a paradigm of a regime that founds its legitimacy on masculinity, mass panic, surveillance, and control.

"Don’t label me," stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

“Don’t label me,” stencil graffiti by Nooneswa, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/

THREE. One thing the press stories on Egypt won’t tell you about is the departures. Not loud enough to furnish headlines, the withdrawing footsteps drum in an undertone these days, a slow diminuendo of closing doors. Several well-known rights activists left the country in recent weeks, shadowed by warnings of imminent arrest. Yesterday, November 10, was the deadline for NGOs to submit to the supervision of the “Ministry of Social Solidarity” (Miniluv); recalcitrants may be shut down, their staff arrested. Some groups are already shuttering, some employees discreetly looking for visas. The melancholy and menace of endings suffuse casual encounters. You go to a goodbye party for a friend who’s off for a three-day conference abroad, and find he has no definite plans to return. All my gay friends are talking about leaving, all, without exception; to walk the street with one is to trek haltingly between the windows of travel agents’ offices, plate glass shimmering with flights priced out of reach. And these are the lucky, still free to dream of exits. Prisons and camps are crammed with tens of thousands of political prisoners, most though not all Islamists, who will stay till the regime is done with them.

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Annibale Gatti (1828-1909) Dante in Exile, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

No such exodus ever blighted the Mubarak years. I always felt most Egyptians would never abandon Egypt until the last extremity: even the most endangered used to try to stick it out back then, staying put despite the direst warnings. Yet settling over Egypt’s remaining liberals now is a fear some barely bring themselves to whisper. Nobody ever thought things could be worse than under the old dictator. They can.

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

I see you: Sisi in full regalia

A decade ago, liberals and activists and democrats led almost charmed lives — seen from the darkness of today. They might be harassed at the airport or threatened by State Security in late-night calls, but they were rarely arrested. If they were detained, the thugs would hold them a few days, even torture them a bit pour encourager les autres, then set them loosethey almost never went to prison. Mubarak didn’t take the liberals seriously. A few kids staging tiny protests, a few offices emitting press releases: this was not where he divined a threat. The most horrific extremes — the electroshock and ice-water tortures, the years or decades in stinking cells with no hope of trial, the disappearance into nameless places where no spouse or lawyer could find you — he reserved for his most feared enemies, the Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood and those to the right of it.

Sisi’s regime doesn’t just jail and torture the Brotherhood. It kills them. The penalty for guilty liberals has also ratcheted upwards. The main tenet of this dictatorship is that Mubarak failed because he was weak. Leniency seduced him; he relaxed the reins to let human rights groups yammer, reporters report, bloggers blog, students demonstrate. No more. When human rights researcher Yara Sallam is sent to prison for three years, it’s a signal to NGOs that cells are ready for them. When journalists from Al-Jazeera get 7-to-15-year sentences, it’s a sign for foreigners and journalists: neither passports nor press cards protect them. No one is safe.

So much of Sisi’s regime is about dominating people’s bodies. The draconian protest law passed last year criminalizes the physical solidarity and togetherness that produced the Revolution in Midan Tahrir. Sexual harassment controls women on the street. The metastasizing police presence treats almost every gesture as a subversive act. The government doesn’t just want to regulate opinion or suppress dissent; its invasions have a grittily material aim, getting under the skin and in the bones, as if Sisi wants to subject the whole population to a military drill.

"No to sexual harassment," street art by Mira Shihadeh, from

This picture does not represent reality: “No to sexual harassment,” street art by Mira Shihadeh, from http://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com

They control you. They can throw your body in jail at any time; or they can use you to find out what other bodies are up to. Last week police compelled a young man — I’ll call him Walid — to admit he was gay after detaining him for a different offense. I interviewed another person held briefly in the same case, who said:

They told Walid that he had the chance to go free. But the officer who was playing “good cop” added: “If you want to get this case cancelled, here is a pen and paper. Write down all the men you have had sex with: name, and age, and address. We promise we won’t hurt them — it’s just a favor to us.”

Walid hesitated and the policeman said: “While we were questioning you, you must have realized that we know everything. We know the [Internet] accounts of you people, we know your numbers. We don’t even need this. But I am trying to help you. You need to show us you are grateful.”

Walid wrote down a bunch of  names, some foreigners and some Egyptians. When he was finished, the policeman said: “All right. Now tell me which ones are tops and which are bottoms.”

A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was true he could get Ugandan citizenship and resettle there. He’s gay, and he knows all about Uganda and the gays. That tells you how bad things are in Egypt.

The dissidents, the revolutionaries, the activists, the long-hairs, the ones with weird or unwanted bodies, the gays and the mokhanatheen: They all look the same to the government, grimy deviants. Probably they are, but they are also prophets. Nobody likes prophets, because they are unmoored from the real. They dream of freedom — political, bodily, sexual — when it does not exist and is an insult to the unfree. Mubarak’s dictatorship bred prophets, who turned the crawlspaces and margins where they were ignored into cribs of liberty where they could dream. The prophets saw the light coming, and many saw the darkness that would follow it too. And what is the fate of prophets?

When the locusts occupied our town,
no milk came to the door, the dailies suffocated,
our jails were opened to release
all prophets.
They streamed through the streets,
3800 prophets,
talking and teaching without restriction,
and eating their fill of that gray
and jumpy mess
we called the plague.

So everything was fine and up to expectations.

Soon our milk came again; our papers reappeared;
And prophets filled our jails.

Günter Grass, “Food for Prophets”

Street art supporting  the digital platform "The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

Street art supporting the digital platform “The Uprising of Women in the Arab World’

4 thoughts on “Virginity tests, vile bodies: Stories from Sisi’s Egypt

  1. Pingback: # TOPIE IMPITOYABLE /// Political and Administrative Capture of Female Bodies | The Funambulist

  2. Pingback: The Week in Links—November 14th

  3. Pingback: Meet this policeman. He is going to arrest you. | a paper bird

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