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The Meaning of Revolution: On Samira Ibrahim

[Graffiti of Samira Ibrahim and Khaled Sa‘id on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Photo by Sherene Seikaly] [Graffiti of Samira Ibrahim and Khaled Sa‘id on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Photo by Sherene Seikaly]

At that thin membrane, the hymen, narratives unfold and lives are determined. There, the binaries of the clean and the stained, the righteous and the debauched, the honorable and the shamed flourish. There the blurry border between the civilized and the backward, the liberated and the oppressed, the East and the West, pretends to lie. There the claims to flesh as an evidentiary terrain stand.

For the last year and a half, one woman has chipped away at this edifice erected on her hymen. The task is larger than her. Yet whatever its outcome, her battle bares the force and the meaning of revolution.

Samira Ibrahim, like hundreds of thousands of her compatriots, reclaimed Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011. It would not be her first or last bid for freedom. 

On 26 January just a day after the spark of revolution had begun to spread, she was detained.

Dissidence and its costs were not new to her.

She came from a line of Islamists who paid dearly for their opposition to Hosni Mubarak.

In Middle School, state security interrogated her for slicing through the rhetoric that celebrated Arab armies and their so-called brave confrontation of Israeli occupation. 

But the trials in store were far beyond what these experiences could prepare her for.

She rejoiced along with millions when a popular uprising broke Mubarak’s thirty-year grip on Egypt.

But the revolution had cut authoritarianism only at its tip. The mutilation of the flesh had sown deep roots, roots the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) would attempt to further embed during their ostensibly transitional military rule.

In March 2011, the day after International Women’s Day, when a demonstration for gender equality turned ugly, Samira, along with hundreds of others, took to Tahrir Square once again.

She, along with seventeen other women, were handcuffed and dragged from Tahrir Square to the Cairo Museum. At that vault of historical treasures spanning 4,000 years, military officers beat, electrocuted, poured water on, and slapped the women’s faces with their shoes. They orchestrated a portrait of incrimination, coercing the women to pose alongside Molotov cocktails, presenting them as government thugs and prostitutes just as they told the revolutionaries: “You have ruined the country.”

These were the methods of the remnants of the former regime. The SCAF aimed to take on the guardianship of a revolution that they sought to destroy.

Samira wished for death. But she understood: “They were trying to make us regret.” To regret defiance. To regret revolution.

The women were held for several hours on a bus and later transported to the military prison, Haikstep.

Worn down by beating, scarred by electrocution, tired and hungry, Samira spotted a freshly printed poster of the deposed president. “We love Mubarak,” an officer explained.

She and the other women were then ordered to form two lines based on a semantic binary: “women” (without hymens) and “girls” (with hymens).

The “girls,” Samira among them, were stripped and taken to a separate room. There in full view of tens of officers who recorded the events on their phones, the military physician Ahmed Adel conducted a series of “virginity tests.”

A general later explained to CNN: these women were “not like your daughter or mine,” for they “had camped out in tents with male protestors.” The army had to protect itself: “[w]e 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.”

According to this tautology: Ahmed Adel punctured Samira’s hymen to prove that it had (not) existed. For if it did not exist, and she was not a virgin, her rape would than be impossible. He raped her so that she could not claim that she was raped.

Samira resisted what was expected of her: to hide and cover herself in shame. She came forward, she detailed the brutalization, and she took the army to court.

Samira would see victory and defeat. In December 2011, a civilian judge ruled the practice of “virginity tests” illegal. Later in March 2012, a military tribunal acquitted Ahmed Adel of rape and charged him instead with “public indecency” and “disobeying military orders.” The court further concluded that the “virginity tests” had never been conducted in the first place.

That day of coercive penetration marked for Samira the end of the revolution. But her perseverance signals the beginning of a dramatic change.

Death, torture, and mutilation continue to be the inevitabilities of opposition to authoritarianism. Activists, scholars, and politicians struggle to understand what is driving Arabs from Tunis to Damascus to Qatif to take their lives in their hands and on to the streets. People had overcome the obstacle of fear, they concluded.

But it is not just the fear of mutilation that revolutionaries overcome; it is also the fear of public shame.

In March 2012, Samira walked out of the military court. Her face, always framed by a colorful headscarf, usually exuded the kind of strength reserved only for the very brave. That day it was contorted in pain. 

A woman rushed to her, admonishing: “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” Samira’s followers understood the almost brutal plea. Her defeat would not be hers alone.

Samira Ibrahim did not claim the category of the Virgin as a sacred space of refuge. She did not fight her brutalization in the tired terms of honor and righteousness. She fought it on political grounds. She confronted the precipice at which her flesh and its openings had become the terrain of public scrutiny, and defying descent she decided instead to walk all over it.

Virgin? Girl? Woman?

Revolutionary.

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