Outcry in Egypt after lawmaker proposes 'virginity tests' for university entry

Story highlights

  • Female virginity test to enter university
  • Parents would be notified if daughters failed
  • FGM has been outlawed since 2008

Cairo, Egypt (CNN)A member of Egypt's parliament has sparked an outcry after reportedly calling for women to be submitted to virginity tests before being allowed to go to university.

"Any girl who enters university, we have to check her medical examination to prove that she is a Miss. Therefore, each girl must present an official document upon being admitted to university stating she's a Miss," Elhamy Agina was quoted by the Egyptian daily Al-Youm Al-Sabe'a as saying.
    The comments by the Egyptian MP -- known for his outspoken and often controversial views on gender -- have caused an understandable stir.
    NGOs, politicians and women's rights advocates all condemned Afgina's statements -- and the National Council for Women as well as the President of Cairo University called for him to be stripped of his parliamentary immunity.
    "His statements are offensive to Egyptian women and to the Egyptian people in general," NCW head Maya Morsy told Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.
    This is not the first time Agina has made headlines with his opinions. Last month, he defended female genital mutilation (FGM) by saying men are already having problems in bed.
    "If we stop circumcision [of women], we will need strong men and we don't have this type of men," he told the Parlamany news website. In another outburst, he called on his female colleagues to dress modestly while in parliament.

    Agina: Test would curb use of 'urfi'

    The virginy tests would help curb the use of "urfi" -- or unregistered marriage -- Agina reportedly told local media.
    Unregistered marriage, in which a couple signs a piece of paper attesting to their union, is a way of circumventing the religious and social prohibition of premarital sex. Urfi is not recognized by law, and families are often unaware that their children have signed up for it. The parents would be notified if their daughter failed the test, Agina added.
    Agina was unmoved by the criticism at first: "If this decision upsets you then you are afraid that your daughter got married without your consent?" Agina asked Al-Youm Al-Sabe' newspaper last week.
    But earlier this week Agina was pressed into offering an apology during an interview with a local TV station. He said it was "merely a suggestion" and a "spur of the moment comment."
    "I apologize for the misunderstanding of my words," he said. "Egyptian girls are my mother, my sister and my daughter."
    CNN was unable to reach Agina for comment.

    Backlash against fight for women's rights?

    One leading women's campaigner suggested Agina's comments were a backlash against growing female activism in Egypt.
    "As the feminist movement gains prominence, it scares people, and this is their defense mechanism," Dalia Abd Elhameed, gender rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told CNN.
    Compared to their situation prior to the 2011 revolution, women are in a better place, she added.
    Egypt has made significant strides in legislation aimed at improving women's lives, including more stringent laws that criminalize areas such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual harassment.
    The parliament to which Agina belongs has the biggest number of elected women in Egypt's legislative history thanks to a quota system. Seventy-five of the 89 female MPs who stood in the last vote were elected -- and the rest were appointed by the President, who declared 2017 to be the "year of the woman." The law gives the President the right to appoint 28 members out of 596 MPs.
    May El-Batran, one of those female MPs, sees herself as a "walking proof" of the achievements of women and society as a whole. At 40, she's the youngest head of a parliamentary committee.
    "The Egyptian parliament made this achievement. I represent a national movement, the product of two revolutions," El-Batran told CNN.
    Female legislators like her are influencing the discussion beyond the narrow prism of women's issues.
    "We are not engaging in FGM and that's it, but the civil service law, the value added tax law and more," she added.

    Progress: Steady but slow

    But the situation around the country is not always as upbeat. Female genital mutilation, for example, has been outlawed since 2008, but only two cases have been brought to court under this law -- and only when the girls involved died during the procedure.
    The Egyptian Demographic and Health Survey of 2014 recorded a 13% drop in FGM rates among girls aged 15-17 since 2008, but 92% of respondents aged 15-49 said they were subject to it.
    However, opposition to verbal and physical sexual harassment is faring better, thanks to a rigorous grassroots campaign that highlighted the importance of women to Egypt's revolution and their right to use public space.
    Women are encouraged to confront their harassers and take them to court, even though abuse of women in streets across Egypt still remains a big problem. A UN study in 2013 reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women admitted to being sexually harassed at least once.
    Despite the progress made, activists such as Abd Elhameed say Agina's comments are frustrating.
    "It's devastatingly sad," she said. "He's not just a media figure but an MP with real powers. It's draining to keep talking about common sense. It's dangerous for people's IQs.
    "When it comes to women's sexual rights, the debate is still in square one. We should move on."