Teen Egyptian girl’s case puts legal system under spotlight

CAIRO (AP) – The prosecution of a 15-year-old girl who killed a bus driver after he allegedly tried to rape her has reignited debate over the treatment of women in Egypt’s legal system, including the practice of virginity tests and blaming victims of sexual violence.

In July, the teenager made headlines after she confessed to police that she stabbed to death a bus driver who she alleged had kidnapped her in a deserted rural area near Cairo and sought to sexually assault her at knife point. The girl said she tricked her alleged assailant, took away his knife, and stabbed him several times before running away.

Shortly after her arrest, the teenager was required to undergo a virginity test, an invasive procedure that rights groups said in itself amounts to sexual assault.

Several women’s rights groups have offered legal assistance, arguing for leniency for the teen because she defended herself against a sexual attack. They hope that a judge’s ruling in her favour could set an important legal precedent and help challenge what they view as a deep-seated misogynistic culture of blaming female victims rather than male attackers.

“This case reveals the dualism in Egyptian society,” said President of the Cairo Foundation for Law and Development Intissar Saeed. “I myself have sympathised with her since day one. But when I wrote about her on my Facebook page some male lawyers attacked the girl on my page saying she was not a decent woman.”

The teen’s name was widely published in the Egyptian media. However, The Associated Press does not generally identify individuals who say they have been sexually assaulted or those under the age of 18 who are accused of crimes.

Unlawful virginity examinations gained attention in 2011 when some women said they were detained by military personnel and forced to undergo virginity tests while protesting the interim military government that took over the country after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

During her interrogation, the girl said she was on a date with her boyfriend before riding the bus – a statement that could easily undermine her reputation and probably her credibility in conservative Egyptian society, where dating is frowned upon.

After her detention, the girl was required to undergo a test which determined she was a virgin – which in the Egyptian context could be viewed as helpful to her case. Saeed explained that this test is a routine legal procedure whenever a woman reports a rape or alleged rape. Yet, she finds it irrelevant in this case.

“She said (the bus driver) tried to rape her but did not so I believe there was no need for this examination,” said Saeed, whose advocacy group is part of the teen’s legal team. Feminists have been campaigning for the girl’s release and calling for her to face a lesser charge than murder.

However, last month, the investigating judge upheld an appeal by the prosecutor against an earlier court decision to release her and ordered her detained for another 30 days.

“There is a frightening misogynistic sense of solidarity in the society,” said Mozn Hassan, founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a group that has long provided legal and psychological support to women who had to undergo a virginity test. The test has become a tool to weigh the virtuousness of the victim in cases of sexual assault, she added.

“If she is not divorced, married or widowed and turned out not to be a virgin, she gets automatically labeled as indecent and deserving what she had gone through.”

“The man is always presumed innocent. Yet, it is very logical in a country where more than 95 per cent of women are sexually harassed, that we should start off by believing what the woman is saying,” she said.