On March 9, 25-year-old Samira Ibrahim was arrested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square while participating in a protest. Along with 172 other demonstrators, including 17 women, she was forcefully removed from the protests and brought to the Egyptian Museum on the edge of the square, where she and the others were bound and tortured for seven hours before being loaded onto buses and eventually brought to Heikstep, a military detention center.
There, she and the other women were forced to break themselves into two groups: virgins and non-virgins.Samira, along with six others who also identified as the former, were then subjected to ‘virginity tests’ in which they were made to strip naked in a room where soldiers watched through an open window and took photographs on their cell phones. Afterward, she was brought to a separate room where a man in a military uniform who identified himself as a doctor proceeded to examine her vagina for five minutes for the presence of an intact hymen.
Samira filed an official complaint with the Egyptian military prosecution. The only woman in the group that was taken such action, she says she received phone calls with death threats on a near-daily basis since filing her case on July 1.
Yet she did not desist, continuing to pursue her case despite the danger that comes with it, and even though her lawyers and human rights experts said that the outcome did not look promising. Now, nearly five months after beginning this process, an Egyptian court has ruled in Samira’s favor, officially ordering the Egyptian military to stop the use of ‘virginity tests’ on female detainees.
These images trace her journey through the square on that day back in March, as told in her own words.
1. The headscarf of Samira Ibrahim.
“I used to print posters and go and paste them outside schools at night. I would throw rocks at lampposts to put them out so I can paste the posters in the streets and no one would see me, because obviously, if they caught me I’d be in big trouble…When they took me to prison [at age 16], they couldn’t believe I was the one responsible for all the posters. They thought somebody put me up to it.”
2. Tahrir Square in the early morning.
“I had spent the night [of March 8] in [Tahrir] square. Do you see that tree over there? That small one? That’s where I was sleeping. On the lawn.”
“People were all over, but I used to like to sit under this tree. I didn’t have a tent, so I sat in the shade of the tree…I was kind of surveying the situation, seeing what was happening. They [the Egyptian soldiers] were attacking us [the protesters]…They were over there and they would come, and go back, come, and go back, but then suddenly, they attacked…They came onto the square with tanks, running people over. Of course, all of us had to run.”
3. A reflection in the window of a shop in Tahrir Square.
“I was really scared when I saw the number of officers arriving… People were running here and there in opposite directions. But for me, I felt if I ran here, there’s the American University of Cairo and the Interior Ministry and I wouldn’t be able to escape, so I ran in the opposite direction, towards the city center. I thought, for sure, if I go there the people will protect me.”
4. A car sits parked in Tahrir Square.
“I think about 60 people were after me. All of them were the military…They came, they had weapons, machine guns. You know, it was almost as if they were there to arrest Al-Qaeda itself.”
5. Tahrir Square reflected in the window of a tourist agency.
“First I was standing, watching what was happening, and then they arrested me… Right underneath that tourist company. They said, ‘get her.’ They pointed at me. They arrested me, but you know how they arrested me? They pulled me from my hair. They dragged me on the ground and my stomach was kind of showing. Since then I’ve been wearing a swimming suit under my clothes so if that happens again it won’t happen. “
6. A woman walks through a side street in Tahrir Square.
“I gave myself up and they started to drag me from my hair. It wasn’t just one soldier, it was a number of them, some were beating me, some were pulling me…It felt like a whole infantry was after me. “
7. Men are silhouetted while sitting in Tahrir Square.
“They dragged me this whole way, all the way to the museum, from my hair. They dragged me on my back, they pulled me….Lots of people were being dragged with us… You know, just imagine, look at this distance. Even if someone was running, they’d need a break. but they were dragging me, calling me names, kicking me.”
8. Guards stand outside the Egyptian Museum, on the edge of Tahrir Square.
“Near that gray post, there was a military general and he started to accuse me of being a prostitute. I was extremely surprised, thinking, why is he accusing me of that? I was still being dragged this whole distance.”
9. A sign reading “WELCOME” greets visitors on the fence outside the Egyptian Museum.
“In the beginning, during the early part of the revolution, I used to stand there in the front, near that statue…Near that fence. That’s where they tied me, from the outside, the side near the street. Then they started to pour water on us, and electrocute us, and call us names…My hands were tied, I was being humiliated, they poured water on me, electrocuted me, insulted me, the whole time during those seven hours. People on the square kind of had an idea of what was happening, but there was nothing they could really do.”
10. A bus loads passengers in Tahrir Square.
“Then they took us and loaded us on buses and the buses left in that direction…The buses were all military buses. When we were on the buses they didn’t blindfold us, but they did more than that, they were beating us on the face while we were on the bus. They really beat us very badly. So even, you know, boarding the bus already you’re exhausted, but even on the bus they continue to beat you.”
“We spent the night on the buses at C-28 [detention center] on March 9. March 10 they took us to prison. The prison is in District 10. The next morning we switched cars; they moved us from the buses to these sort of detention trucks used by the military. The trucks moved with us, we moved a long distance and suddenly I found we were on a desert road. I looked at the sign on the road and I saw Heikstep [prison]. So I thought, have we reached Heikstep? Did they really take us that far? I had never heard of Heikstep until March 9 events and that’s when I found out it was a military prison.”
11. Samira at a guesthouse looking out over Tahrir Square. She has come to the city unaccompanied from her hometown in Upper Egypt to file her testimony for her pending complaint against the Egyptian military.
“They took us straight to prison…it was about 10:30 in the morning and they were already laying accusations against us, they had their weapons pointed at us. They threatened that they would just shoot us and bury us in the sand, so of course we were scared and didn’t want to ask for anything. We’d already been beaten and tortured, so imagine what would happen if we’d asked for something.”
“So of course when I appeared in front of the prosecutor I didn’t have an attorney, and I was surprised, you know, how could I be here without an attorney? My whole body was exhausted. I couldn’t talk…you know, no matter how much I tell you I can’t describe how exhausted I felt. Even to this day there are marks on my body, right here on my shoulder there’s a mark. They’re still there.”
“It occurred to me to ask for an attorney, and when I first went to the prosecutor I asked for an attorney and he sort of looked at me and said, ‘You ask for an attorney? You all deserve to be shot.’”
12. Samira in her room at a guesthouse in Tahrir Square.
“I know that to violate a woman in that way was considered rape. I felt like I had been raped.”
13. Samira in her room at a guesthouse in Tahrir Square.
“All my energy and my thought now is focused now on violations that could happen against women. I’ve reached a stage where, for me, it’s about me being persistent. And it’s about me standing alone and facing up to what happened to me. Because if I don’t, this could happen to somebody else. It could happen to you, to her, to any other girls. To any other Egyptian girls.”
“If any woman is violated and she files a lawsuit against her perpetrators, then this is going to eventually stop, and they’re not going to put pressure on political activists by threatening to violate their wives or daughters. I’m turning the tables on them and telling them, ‘what you did to me, I’m going to use against you’ to prove what they’ve done’…I have to get my rights back”
In honor of today’s ruling in Samira Ibrahim’s favor against the Egyptian military, which officially ordered the Egyptian military to stop the use of ‘virginity tests’ on female detainees, here’s a photoessay I worked on this past October while at the GlobalPost/Open Hands Initiative Covering a Revolution Fellowship in Cairo, Egypt. Many thanks to Kristin Deasy, Deena Adel Eid, Julianna Schatz, and Laura El-Tantawy.