Ghosts in the Egyptian virginity tests?

CNN is up with a horrifying story about what female protesters went through during the recent Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt. A senior Egyptian general has admitted that women were subjected to "virginity checks." Amnesty International had alleged as such in a report following the protests. That group claimed that females "were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched, threatened with prostitution charges and forced to submit to virginity checks." Those reports were denied. Things have changed:

But now a senior general who asked not to be identified said the virginity tests were conducted and defended the practice.

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general said. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs)."

The general said the virginity checks were done so that the women wouldn't later claim they had been raped by Egyptian authorities.

"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," the general said. "None of them were (virgins)."

This is horribly sad and also tremendously bizarre. I had more questions after reading the story than I did at the beginning. Why would, for instance, proof that they weren't virgins have anything to do with whether the military raped or sexually assaulted them? What are these virginity checks? What in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is going on?

We get the testimony of Salwa Hosseini, a young hairdresser who described being shocked with a stun gun, called a prostitute and given a virginity test. She says of the treatment that it was designed to steal her dignity.

Later, we learn:

The senior Egyptian general said the 149 people detained after the March 9 protest were subsequently tried in military courts, and most have been sentenced to a year in prison.

Authorities later revoked those sentences "when we discovered that some of the detainees had university degrees, so we decided to give them a second chance," he said.

All this is interesting but I can't help but think too much is being assumed of the reader, particularly with the virginity tests. I found this 2009 BBC story about anger in Egypt over kits that enable women to fake their virginity. In that story, we learn that there is a religious component. The brief article gives these details:

Abdul Mouti Bayoumi said supplying the item was akin to spreading vice in society, a crime punishable by death in Islamic Sharia law. ...

There is a stigma about pre-marital sex in conservative Arab societies.

Professor Bayoumi, a scholar at the prestigious al-Azhar University, said it undermined the moral deterrent of fornication, which he described as a crime and one of the cardinal sins in Islam.

When writing about another place, we need to know more about those aspects of the culture that create situations such as this. Even just brief mentions of traditions, religion and mores would help a great deal.

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