Egypt’s Copts in shock over church virginity testing

Sunday 23/10/2016
Egyptian Christian girls light candles in the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, Egypt, August 30th, 2016. (Reuters)

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.”