The human body has been front and center of this revolution since the early days of its outbreak last January. Even though the leading slogan of the revolution, Bread, Freedom and Human Dignityis abstract and does not make explicit reference to the human body, it is the 30 dark years of torture, hunger and ill-health inflicted on the bodies of Egyptian men and women under Mubarak’s rule that give this slogan meaning and resonance.
In the last weeks of 2011, women’s bodies have emerged as a nexus for many of the principles and noble objectives of this revolution. It is now apparent that women, and more specifically the female body, occupy center stage in the most recent, highly delicate stage of the revolution; namely, the struggle against the military institution with its patriarchal authority, repressive machinery and premeditated determination to thwart the revolution and intimidate the men and women who are carrying it out.
The pivotal role of women and the female body in this revolution has manifested itself under many guises. First came the photographs in the nude that Alia Mahdi posted of herself on her blog in a bold gesture to challenge existing taboos about the body and raise fundamental questions about who owns and controls it. Then came the horrific video footage of a young woman whose body was stripped of veil and clothing she was dragged and stomped in her naked defenselessness by army boots, and this at the doorstep of parliament and cabinet buildings. Then we watched the equally horrifying footage of Azza Helal who rushed to the defense of the “woman in blue bra” — as the victim mentioned above came to be famously known in the English language press — only to find her own body subjected to brutal beating, again by army soldiers. And finally, we saw tens of thousands of women taking to the streets in a mass rally of protest against the army’s brutality and its systematic violation of the sanctity of women’s bodies. These events show that the female body is at the heart of this great revolution in which women have emerged as a driving and galvanizing force.
In my opinion, however, the most significant development concerning the right of women to their bodies and the most important act of rebellion of 2011, a year in which there has been no shortage of acts of courage and rebellion, was Samira Ibrahim’s lawsuit against the army for subjecting her and six other women in March 2011 to the “virginity test.” Her lawsuit represents courage and perseverance as well as her conviction that the army should be held accountable for violating the sanctity of her person. She was striving to achieve the highest aims of the revolution, namely the right of Egyptian men and women to bodily integrity and their entitlement to live in their country with dignity and freedom.
Samira Ibrahim has shown that Egyptian women can defy the systematic abuses of the patriarchal authority that has dominated not only during the Mubarak era but since the military takeover of 1952, if not the founding of the modern Egyptian state in the early nineteenth century.
Ibrahim may not be aware that the humiliating virginity test she was subjected to last March in the Hykestep military prison was not the first of its kind in Egypt’s modern history. In 1832, a “School of Midwives” was established in the Azbakeya district to teach a select number of girls the basics of medical science. Graduates of that school were appointed as paramedics in police stations to do what we now call "forensic" work. In addition to identifying causes of deaths, they also conducted virginity tests on girls whose male relatives had brought them to the police stations to ascertain their virginity.
Police records of hundreds of such tests are kept in the Egyptian National Archives. They contain menial statements such as "found not a virgin,” “her hymen has been removed completely” and “she has been used before."
Ibrahim may also not know that the “School of Midwives” was primarily founded to conduct medical examinations of prostitutes who were believed to be responsible for spreading venereal disease in the army. She may also not be aware that the modern educational institutions founded in the nineteenth century were not aimed at the dissemination of knowledge, let alone at the empowerment of women, as much as they were intended to tighten the grip of the modern state on the bodies of its citizens and their fortunes. In this sense, the modern state in Egypt was never there for the benefit of Egyptian men and women; it was never intended to serve their dreams and desires.
Though she may not know all this, Ibrahim’s prosecution of the military for their infamous virginity tests is the greatest challenge facing the Egyptian military, the illegitimate father of the modern Egyptian state.
It is actions like Ibrahim’s that will make Egypt a country that respects us all and preserves the dignity of each and every one of us.
Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo