CAIRO — Jehad Safwat pulls her headscarf tight and presses her hands deep into her belly when she talks about the virginity tests she underwent last month in Egyptian detention.
The 21-year-old medical student was arrested at a Dec. 28 rally organized by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Cairo University. For nearly two weeks she was held in detention, mostly at Cairo's Azkabia police station, where she says she was forced to submit to virginity and pregnancy tests that police conducted at a medical facility nearby. When she was finally released, police filed no formal charges against her — and handed her the bill for her "treatments." Safwat was one of four women who spoke with BuzzFeed about undergoing forced virginity and pregnancy tests at the hands of the Egyptian security services.
The Egyptian army, which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-led government last year and has effectively ruled the country since, promised to ban the tests after it emerged that more than a dozen women arrested during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square had been forced to submit to them. It hasn't, and the doctors arrested for performing the tests were acquitted when they brought to trial a year later.
Now, the tests are back. After more than a year in which human rights activists say that police refrained from carrying out virginity tests, or employing the types of harsh interrogation methods regularly associated with the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, reports have resurfaced of police brutality against both men and women. It's the final sign, activists say, that the police state is fully back.
The virginity tests take an immeasurable toll on their victims. "I feel like my body is not mine anymore. I feel very humiliated and very shocked," Safwat said. She has abandoned her studies and rarely leaves her parents' home.
Social stigma, even among family, abounds. Safwat's mother refused to sit in the room when her daughter began to disclose details of her examination at the hands of prison doctors.
"My family cannot stand this," Safwat said. "They do not want me to speak about it. I am not married, I have not even had a boyfriend." She did not know the technical names for the gynecological equipment that was used on her, but described a room with stirrups and the feeling of cold metal. "No man has ever touched my body like that," she said. "I was terrified."
All four women who spoke to BuzzFeed said they had been detained by Egyptian security forces in the last four months and had been held for at least two weeks. All four had been released after being held in Egyptian detention facilities, which range from police stations to prisons. They spoke of many other cases of women they knew who had been subjected to the same tests, but were still behind bars awaiting charges to be brought against them.
"I thought the tests were history. I thought we had left them behind in the days of Mubarak," said another woman, who spent nearly a month in detention in December 2013. She asked not to be identified by name. "I cannot believe Egypt has returned to this. I cannot believe that this was done to me."
Today, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian general who publicly defended virginity tests, is widely expected to become the country's next president. In April 2012, he argued that virginity tests had been carried out "to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape." At the time, Sisi was a largely unknown military figure.
Human rights activists say the forced virginity tests fall into a larger pattern of security service abuse.
"There has been a definite increase in stories of torture in these last few months," Mohammed Emessiry, a researcher with Amnesty International, said. Beatings have become so commonplace, he said, that detainees described them as a "welcoming party" to jail. "It's not just limited to political prisoners, it's part of a wider crackdown. It's to send a message to people that whoever opposes the government will face punishments," Emessiry said.
The Ministry of the Interior declined to answer questions by BuzzFeed about the treatment of detainees in Egyptian custody, but released a statement denying any abuses and saying it was open to receiving complaints from alleged victims.
"I have no hope that my complaint, or any other, will ever get answered," said Safwat, who refused to get medical attention or speak to lawyers after her release, saying she didn't see the point. "I have no hope that it will get better, I feel it will get worse. We have seen, in the past, that Sisi believes that these virginity tests and other types of brutality are acceptable forms of punishment to be used against the Egyptian people. Why are we shocked that now, as he prepares to become president, he is bringing them back?"
Another student who was arrested with Safwat and who was also forced to undergo a virginity test told BuzzFeed that she no longer feels Egypt is her home.
"I look around me and I see Egyptians who welcomed the police and the army to our streets. They forgot what they did to us in 2011, and they have, like, amnesia for the virginity tests Sisi supported for those girls in Tahrir," she said, asking that BuzzFeed identify her only by her first name, Heba. "I don't recognize Egypt today. I am scared of it."
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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