Egypt’s Copts in shock over church virginity testing
Cairo - Anger is rising among Christians in Egypt after a former legal adviser to the Coptic Orthodox Church accused the church of forcing Christian girls to take virginity tests before getting married.
Ramses al-Naggar said a number of churches subject girls to the tests, which activists called a “humiliation” for Christian women.
“The tests will be obligatory in all churches by next July,” Naggar said. “The church just wants to ensure that wives-to-be are virgins before marriage.”
Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman Bishop Polis Halim denied claims of virginity testing. He said church doctors ask women and men about to get married to be tested to ensure that they have no medical problems.
“This is also done by specialised doctors who use modern medical equipment,” Halim said. “The claim that we subject girls to virginity testing has nothing to do with reality.”
Like other Egyptians, Christian parents are strongly opposed to their daughters having premarital sex. In southern Egypt, where communities are dominated by strict tribal, family and religious rules, virginity is a serious issue.
A man could be killed by a woman’s family if he has had an affair with the woman. A woman could be killed by her relatives if she has — or is rumoured to have — lost her virginity outside marriage.
Christian activists say in addition to degrading women, virginity testing violates human rights.
“These tests are a blatant violation of the bodies of Christian women,” said Christian activist Hany Ezzat. “They violate their rights as human beings.”
Other Christian activists called on Coptic Pope Tawadross II to immediately stop the practice of subjecting Christian girls to the tests and threatened to take the matter to court.
Nagger said the testing was part of pre-marriage courses given by the church to couples. He said the courses include advice on sexual relations, how a woman should treat her husband and how couples can make their marriage a success.
“The church does this in its bid to prevent divorce,” he said. “Some men come to the church after marriage to complain that the women they got married to were not virgins.”
Divorce is a thorny issue for the followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the majority of Egypt’s Christians who account for almost 10% of the country’s 91 million people. The church allows divorce only for adultery. Christian activists said many thousands of Christian couples remained together only because they were unable to get a divorce.
The church has prepared a personal status law to also permit divorce on other grounds, including drug addiction, apostasy and disease. The law has yet to be approved by the government.
Virginity testing has been an issue in Egypt since a group of girls alleged that the army had subjected them to the tests in 2011, soon after the downfall of long-time president Hosni Mubarak.
The army did not admit to forcing the girls to take the tests but human rights groups accused the army of violating the human rights of the girls and degrading them.
Few Christians seem ready to accept church denials about virginity tests, especially those who claim to know about the testing.
Samih al-Masry, a resident of the southern province of Qena, said Christian girls are asked to take virginity tests at the churches of the province before their engagement.
“The tests are also done in a primitive and degrading manner,” Masry said. “After the tests are made, the future husbands are informed of the results.”
Christian activist Ashraf Anis said Qena was among several provinces where churches subject Christian girls to the tests.
“Parents have to accept the testing because they know that if they refuse it, their daughters will be accused of not being chaste,” Anis said. “This is why they have to silently accept this invasive practice.”