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The 'Virginity Checks': Sexual Abuse as a Weapon of War

by RASHA ELASS

02 Jun 2011 15:03Comments

Regimes target women with tactics that have a long, ugly history.

87a61-Egyptian-Women-Protest-25-300x201.jpg[ opinion ] Rape, blackmail with nude photos, and "virginity checks" are depraved but common weapons used to bully women in many conservative societies today.

The recent report that the Egyptian military ran "virginity checks" on over a dozen women they detained in Tahrir Square is one tragic example.

According to the Amnesty International report, the 18 women held in military detention were "beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to 'virginity checks' and threatened with prostitution charges."

The sinister message behind this tactic goes something like this: If we catch you demonstrating again, we will destroy your reputation and the reputation of your entire clan by publicly saying you are a whore.

Unfortunately, this tactic works very well in a traditional society that puts premium value on a woman's perceived chastity, a place where an unenlightened patriarchy blames the victim.

Now, in light of the Arab Spring, the security apparatus in many states are using this tactic to subdue the insurgency. And in many cases, they do not even have to be so blatant.

In Bahrain, the king's men have now begun detaining women as a matter of routine in what analysts are calling the first-of-its-kind targeting of women in the region. And although there are no reports of mass rape, not yet, the message is very clear.

Keep in mind that this is a culture where female reputation is so delicate that one of the most common forms of harassment is to blackmail a young woman with a "compromising picture," which can be as innocent as her showing her face and smiling flirtatiously into the camera. If she happens to be wearing shorts and a tank top in the presence of a boy, you may very well forget her future prospects for marriage and the stain can taint her sisters and even her entire clan.

Indeed, earlier this year the UAE Interior Ministry "called for urgent legal reforms to protect victims" from this "growing problem," according to the Abu Dhabi-based paper The National.

The report described harrowing ordeals of young women and teenage girls coerced into sexual favors because someone got hold of a picture of them in a bikini or in the company of an unrelated male. The victims fear reprisal by parents and society if the pictures are released.

So imagine the damage to a woman's reputation and psyche in this cultural context if she is detained by state security forces. Add to that physical injury by beating and the tacit threat of rape, which is what the Bahraini police are now employing, and you get a powerful gendered weapon.

In Syria, which seems to be following in Bahrain's footsteps, there are now reports of women being taken from their own homes and detained, sometimes merely for having a male relative among the demonstrators. There are more reports of female demonstrators being physically harassed and bullied, tactics captured in some YouTube footage.

Random men referred to by demonstrators as baltajis, or hoodlums hired by the regime to wreak havoc, can be seen literally running into female demonstrators, pushing them out of the way by shear kinetic force like a school bully. It is an aggressive gesture in any context, but especially in a culture that can penalize a woman with lifelong stigma, or even an "honor killing," for being the victim of male violence.

In Libya, where Colonel Muammar Qaddafi never ceases to shock and disgust the world with his actions, recent reports suggest that he is distributing Viagra-like drugs to his cronies with the explicit instructions to rape women who oppose him.

Rape and sexual violence have long been used as weapons in war, as far back as the armies of Alexander the Great and further still. Recent decades have borne witness to Japan's "comfort women," to the mass rapes in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, to the mass rapes as a weapon of ethnic conflict in Iraq -- to cite just a few of many cases. The United Nations has only recently recognized sexual violence as a "weapon of war."

But this long overdue conclusion may still be lost on the Egyptian military. According to a recent CNN report, an anonymous senior general has not only confirmed the practice of forced "virginity checks," but defended it.

"Virginity checks were done so that the women wouldn't later claim they had been raped by Egyptian authorities," the report quoted the general as saying.

Newsflash to the general: Those women already feel raped.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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