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Nina Burleigh

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Failing the Virginity Test

Posted: 01/13/12 10:45 AM ET

Cairo -- The sick obsession with controlling women and baby-making is a bottomless well of weirdness.

In Egypt, and other nations, Indonesia and Turkey among them, certainly the Gulf States, doctors or midwives are sometimes asked to perform "virginity tests" to ensure that a man is getting a bride untouched by a previous male appendage.

I'm still working out why this is such a problem for the men. I assume they are chiefly concerned about being unfavorably compared with a rival, which is also the basis for the mandated swaddling of female bodies in public, the theory being that exposed female flesh in public is like putting red meat in shark-infested waters.

Yesterday, a very modern young Egyptian man explained it to me quite succinctly. He said that women aren't supposed to show their bodies to any other man after marriage, and that the niqab -- the full black covering -- is a pretty good way to ensure that. He said he wouldn't make his own wife wear one, but wouldn't object if she wanted to. He's in his early twenties. So much for progress in the next generation.

As Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility." One would think this strategy died in the Middle Ages, or at least after the birth control pill. But no. The practice actually has a long history over many nations. British writer Eylam Atakav pulled together some recent examples of virginity testing in Indonesia, Turkey and in various modern films, here ealrier this month. American University Cairo historian Khaled Fahmy, writes here that the archives of Egypt are filled with results of these "tests" going back a century or so.

A very brave 25-year-old named Samira Ibrahim, from a small-town, was dragged away from Tahrir Square and taken to prison, where military police subjected her, along with uncounted other young female protesters, to one of these pseudo-scientific ordeals.

She sued the Egyptian military and won. No one else had the guts to stand up and talk about what happened, not just because of the sense of humiliation that inhibit sex crime victims anywhere, but because over here, in the honor cultures, "deflowered" virgins de facto dishonor their families and can be shunned or even killed by their own fathers or brothers.

I hope to talk to her -- and her father -- before I leave.

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