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High walls, mobile prison, overcrowded rooms, and no regard for one’s bodily autonomy: this is what many women and girls deal with in Egypt’s prisons, only for being human rights activists, journalists, or political opponents to the regime.
Over the past seven years, Egypt’s prisons, especially the notorious Damanhour prison and al-Qanater women’s prison, have witnessed an increase in the number of women prisoners as well as high level of abuse and ill-treatment in dealing with them, including strip searches, beating, insults, and periodic deprivation of personal belongings.
More than 200 female political prisoners are in Egyptian prisons, according to the latest update of the Till The Last Prisoner campaign.
As a former political prisoner, I believe that all this should be documented. All this should be analyzed to understand the reasons behind the exacerbation of the level of abuse faced by women journalists and human rights activists, as well as the daughters, sisters, and wives of those who criticize the Egyptian authorities and the security services. More than 200 female political prisoners are in Egyptian prisons, according to the latest update of the Till The Last Prisoner campaign.
This preliminary analysis aims to document the experiences of a number of former female political prisoners who were subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse because of their work in the human rights field. It covers the circumstances of the arrest of each of the interviewees and the conditions of detention inside various facilities. The goal of the article is to provide a preliminary documentation of the conditions of detention and daily suffering inside women’s prisons in Egypt, and the methods of their quest for survival.
For the purpose of this article, interviews were conducted with several former female detainees, whose names will remain anonymous for security reasons.
Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist Mahienour El-Massry recalls the last time she was arrested: “I was arrested by a number of security officers in civilian clothes in September 2019, in front of the headquarters of the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the Fifth Settlement neighborhood [in Cairo]. They kidnapped me, threw me inside a van, then rushed to one of the illegal detention facilities. Honestly, I consider the conditions of my arrest to be much less violent than what has happened to others.”
Mahienour explained that the extent to which security officers comply—or not—with the law is relative, and depends on the person being arrested and their knowledge of their rights at the moment of their arrest. “When I was arrested, it was not taken into account that I am a woman. There is a need for female officers to be present during women’s arrest, but this is still not the case,” Mahienour added.
Enforced disappearances have increased since 2013, and detainees are usually hidden by security forces in secret places, with their fates unknown to their families or friends. Many find themselves in pre-trial detention, which can be renewed, on charges such as terrorism among other things. In these last few months, two young men have reappeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, three and a half years after they were forcibly disappeared.
Rahma*, a student, tells us about her experience as a child and a political prisoner: “I was 13 at the time, and lived near Rabaa al-Adawiya Square. After I learned of the [Rabaa Square] events, I took part in protests against the security forces’ brutal response. I was arrested then released after several days thanks to the intervention of children rights organizations.”
“I was arrested a second time at the age of 16, then released after six days. After that, I decided not to participate in any demonstration, and went on to join the Faculty of Information at the Al-Azhar University. Later on, while I was planning a trip to an Arab country for tourism, security forces raided our house in the early morning and took me to the police station where I was kept for about a month and a half,” Rahma added.
During the interrogation, the officer kept beating and insulting me, and alternated between slapping my face with his hands and hitting it with a shoe.Rahma*
She continues: “I was interrogated in one of the National Security detention facilities. They blindfolded me before an officer came in to interrogate me. During the interrogation, the officer kept beating and insulting me, and alternated between slapping my face with his hands and hitting it with a shoe. I told him that I had indeed participated in a number of demonstrations due to the brutality I had witnessed by security forces in dealing with demonstrators. As a result, he insulted me and subjected me to electric shocks.”
Which is better: to be detained for years without being abused, or for a short time but subjected to abuse?
Sharifa* says: “My husband and I were arrested in 2017 in front of our house, by security forces in civilian clothes, claiming they wanted to ask us questions about the renovations that we were carrying out in our house. After four hours of waiting at the police station, without anyone talking to us or telling us the reason for our arrest, we were surprised by an officer asking us to follow him to one of the National Security headquarters. It was 3 am when they told us that we had to wait until early morning, until we were finally interrogated by an investigator. The investigator only asked me about my husband and my father [a prominent opposition politician]. When I tried to ask him about the reason for our arrest, he told me that I would know later. After about 72 hours, one of the officers took us to the headquarters of the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the Fifth Settlement neighborhood.”
“I was interrogated again with the same questions about my family and my father. By that point, I realized that the previous investigation had been illegal. After that, I was charged with a case, and remained in pre-trial detention for nearly five years, three of which were in solitary confinement,” Sharifa explained.
Inspection inside detention facilities and prisons amounts to harassment and indecent assault
According to Article 55 of the Egyptian Constitution: “All those who are apprehended, detained or have their freedom restricted shall be treated in a way that preserves their dignity. They may not be tortured, terrorized, or coerced. They may not be physically or mentally harmed, or arrested and confined in designated locations that are appropriate according to humanitarian and health standards […]. Any violation of the above is a crime and the perpetrator shall be punished under the law.”
Female prisoners go through several stages of being searched by security officers or female wardens, depending on the place of detention, which could either be during their time in the police station or immediately after they are placed in prison. Former female prisoners interviewed by TIMEP spoke of what they were subjected to during the search, whether it be during the first investigation session or later on. They indicated that the search for prohibited items in their possession was not in accordance with the law, as their genitals were intentionally touched and they were stripped of all their clothes in front of other prison guards, or under the supervision of policemen or officers.
Mahienour says: “After I was placed in the al-Qanater prison, I was searched by the female wardens there, who stripped me of my clothes and handed me the prison clothes which were white robes.”
As for the student Rahma, she recalls: “They took me and other female detainees from the police station to a public hospital to conduct a pregnancy test, after which I was transferred to al-Qanater women prison. There, one of the wardens searched me in front of her colleagues, and she indecently touched me all over, on the grounds that this was normal. Since I had no knowledge of my rights at that moment, I did not dare to object, but later on I was able to refuse the humiliating search.”
“I felt very humiliated and embarrassed when I was made to take a pregnancy test, and when policemen in the police station mocked me after I told them that I needed to buy sanitary pads,” she added.
When I got to the prison, the prison officer received me and ordered the wardens to carry out the necessary searches. I was stripped of all my clothes, even my underwear, and received the white prison clothes, but they were quite see-through and did not cover my private parts.Sharifa*
Sharifa talks about the fears and confusion that had taken over her from the moment she and her husband were arrested as she found that she was unable to ask for her right of not being strip-searched, which amounts to indecent assault and harassment, according to human rights activists. “When I got to the prison, the prison officer received me and ordered the wardens to carry out the necessary searches. I was stripped of all my clothes, even my underwear, and received the white prison clothes, but they were quite see-through and did not cover my private parts. I asked for other robes so that I could cover my body well,” she stated.
The detention cell for everyone
The Habaskhana, a detention cell, is one of the first stops for the accused in their journey of being arrested and put on trial. It is one of the places of temporary detention in the headquarters of the Public Prosecution and the courts, and is usually underground with no sunlight. The accused stay there until they are summoned for investigation. Female and male prisoners view it as a place where they meet friends and relatives from other prisons. The Habaskhana wall is viewed as a memorial wall, on which some prisoners write phrases or sayings, and sometimes the date and place of their arrest. When prisoners are gathered in the Habaskhana before the court hearings, they take the opportunity to check on each other and to deliver messages orally to those in other prisons. The Habaskhana in the Institute of Police Secretaries in Tora prison, south of Cairo, is considered to be one of the largest Habaskhana cells, although it does not exceed 25 square meters, with the smallest being around 8 square meters according to some testimonies.
According to the Egyptian Penal Code, the Habaskhana falls within the places of detention regulated by Law 396 of 1956 on the organization of prisons and places of detention in police stations.
“Steady… You are on the right path”
Female detainees say those words to support each other through the humiliation of being detained and imprisoned as a woman in Egypt. Rahma says: “I saw this sentence and similar words for the first time when I was moved to the Habaskhana cell before being presented to the investigator at the Public Prosecution office. It was written on the walls. The male prisoners charged with criminal cases relieved themselves in front of us without any sense of embarrassment. The place is very filthy. We could only sit on the floor, which is always dirty, and we would wait there for hours, sometimes up to 12 hours, until they summoned us for investigation.”
“As for the Habaskhana in the Institute of Police Secretaries in Tora, it is better than others and less dirty, but the humidity is high and we always felt very cold. I managed to meet other prisoners from other prisons there, both men and women, and find out some news,” she added.
Sharifa says that her experience was relatively different from that of the others she was with. She was moved to the Habaskhana only once and stayed there for just a few minutes, not for her comfort or due to her old age, but out of a deliberate intention to completely isolate her, so that she could not communicate with others and find out news, or even deliver messages about her conditions inside the prison. She says: “From the first day, I was placed in a solitary confinement cell measuring 150 x 180 centimeters. In the corner of the cell, there was a water tap and a small hole that was supposed to be my toilet. At first, I was unable to do anything except for ablution and praying. Two years later, I was transferred to another cell with fewer female prisoners.”
The lawyer’s role shifts from defending their client to being the only person who can check on the prisoner.
Mahienour talks about the first time she was imprisoned in 2014: “My experience with prison, both as a lawyer and prisoner, makes me fully believe that the law is absent in this country. The lawyer’s role shifts from defending their client to being the only person who can check on the prisoner. I pity the lawyers, because prisoners always place a lot of hope in the law to obtain their rights, but the decisions are always determined by the security services’ orders. However, my experience encouraged me in pursuing my role as a lawyer, in addition to making even more efforts in giving prisoners some positive energy to survive.”
“I always wondered about the use of us lawyers going to the investigation sessions, knowing that the decisions were made in advance; but after going through the experience of detention myself, I am convinced that our presence is absolutely necessary in all sessions, as all the legal violations during this stage must be documented,” she added.
As for her psychological state, Mahienour comments: “I consider my mental state and the thoughts which I had as a political prisoner, not as a lawyer, liberating. For once, I had the ability to talk about my political opinions, because as a lawyer, I cannot burden the prisoner with my political opinions…What we needed to do as lawyers was bring justice, but as a political prisoner, I was able to express myself and what I believe in. The experience gave me a wider space to express my views, and showed me that there is no difference between the law and the belief in a better world. In addition, I closely witnessed how judges deal with lawyers and the accused.”
Rahma appeared before the prosecution after she had spent several days in custody inside the police station. She says: “As soon as I entered the investigator’s room, he did not ask me any question except for: ‘Are you 18?’ to which I answered ‘yes’. He told me that the record keeper would take my statement, then left the interrogation room and did not return.”
Sharifa says: “The first interrogation with me and my husband lasted for more than 12 hours, before I was sent to the al-Qanater Prison. I was surprised when they asked me about personal belongings such as papers, jewelry, computers, mobile phones, and passports. After that, I learned that they had raided our house while we were detained, searched it, and took many personal belongings, including a sum of money. To this day, we have not been able to recover any of these things.”
I spent years in prison with no one telling me what I was charged with, and what the reason behind my imprisonment was.Sharifa*
Sharifa describes her detention period, saying: “During my detention, which lasted for about five years, I was brought before the investigator only a few times, and I feared everyone around me every time. I spent years in prison with no one telling me what I was charged with, and what the reason behind my imprisonment was. In addition to being denied visits or correspondence, I was unable to communicate with my children, my husband, and my family during these years.”
She says: “I was suffering from the lack of a clean bathroom and proper food. During the first three months, I slept on the floor with only a light blanket. I was not allowed to use the prison safes [a savings box in which the family of the prisoner deposits a sum of money to be used inside the prison]. It was only months later that the authorities allowed me to use the safes and buy food, sanitary necessities, and toiletries. However, I was not allowed to get a pen and paper, or any eating utensils as simple as a spoon.”
“Eighteen months later, the security authorities agreed to allow me to receive one picture of my family, a small pen and a few papers, provided that I write on them daily, and then they told me that this would replace the visit which I am entitled to from my family! I suffered from severe harassment and struggled to obtain my rights as a political prisoner. I will never forget how the prison warden insisted on hurting me psychologically numerous times by saying, ‘your family has abandoned you, and none of them want to visit you’,” she added.
Receiving new prisoners
After the search and welcoming party—the beating of the new prisoners—is over, everyone is handed over to the holding cell. According to the Prisons Authority’s Regulations, prisoners should not stay in those cells more than 11 days, but their stay often exceeds 20 days, depending on the responsible officer.
The holding cell is designated to receive the newcomers to the prison, and it is the worst transit place a woman can pass through before she begins her prison time. It is a cell measuring about 4 x 5 meters with about 70 prisoners, including criminal and political prisoners, cramped inside of it. Inside the holding cell, there is a toilet with a wooden door that has many holes; it has no roof and no privacy. Prisoners are not allowed to use the toilet except to relieve themselves, as they are not allowed to shower without the guard’s permission.
New prisoners are isolated, so that they cannot get help from other prisoners. Female prisoners in those holding cells are deprived of everything; they are deprived of family visits, buying any supplies from the cafeteria, and everyone is forced to eat the prison’s food. They are also prevented from resting during the day and physical exercise.
Rahma says: “I stayed in the holding cell for about 20 days. We slept on a rotten and foul-smelling mattress—every three prisoners shared one bed. We were not allowed to take showers. We were not allowed to have visits. In addition, prisoners are not allowed to sleep during the day, as there are times for sleeping and waking up. After 20 days, I was moved to a cell for political prisoners, and my pre-trial detention period lasted for 10 months.”
Rahma describes how she handled the period of arbitrary detention: “My method of resistance was through anticipating everything that could happen to me in prison. I thought that I would probably be sexually assaulted, that I would be cold, starved, and deprived of anything and everything. I also expected that I could lose my virginity at any time, or be subjected to physical abuse. This prior anticipation helped me deal with the threats of being sexually assaulted during the period of enforced disappearance at the National Security headquarters by one of the officers there.”
Lawyer Mahienour explains: “In women’s prisons, prisoners are housed in cells according to the whims of the security officer: many female politicians are placed in cells containing dangerous criminals, or are completely isolated in solitary confinement, so they are twice as likely to be abused, as they lose the support and protection of other prisoners as well.”
“For example, when I was imprisoned in the Damanhour prison, I had to file a case from inside the prison to demand to see the prison regulations in order to obtain our rights as political prisoners. There was a flagrant violation of our right of correspondence [the right to send and receive letters from and to relatives], as there was extreme arbitrariness in granting female prisoners the right to check on their children, and this is considered a true means of psychological torture,” Mahienour added.
She continues: “For example, in the Damanhour prison, one of the officers suddenly decided to deprive us from using toiletries without giving any justification. The canteen and cafeteria were open to prisoners twice a month only. Most of us contracted a skin disease, and women were also not allowed to obtain sanitary pads, which is a basic right of every woman, even prisoners.”
The needs of women differ from the needs of men, and the security authorities take advantage to practice more abuse and humiliation against women.
The relationship between the state and female prisoners
Imprisoning women has become a means of destroying one’s pride and a way to attack political opponents by arresting their families, wives, and daughters.
The women who agreed to be interviewed for this article unanimously agreed that the Egyptian regime and the security authorities adopt a specific approach in dealing with women prisoners, especially human rights activists, journalists, and political opponents. This is shown through the abuse and humiliation that prisoners are put through to break them in all ways possible. They also noticed that women’s arrest rates have increased recently; imprisoning women has become a means of destroying one’s pride and a way to attack political opponents by arresting their families, wives, and daughters. Through their experience in prison, these women believe that the relationship between the state and the prisoner is represented in the security authorities’ belief that it has the right to control the lives of female prisoners based on the whims of the security officers, because, according to them, all prisoners are traitors and criminals.
In women’s prisons, oppression is doubled on the basis of gender. What has been mentioned in this article is only one part of the suffering of women prisoners. Even if a female prisoner is not subjected to harassment, there are other ways in which her privacy would be violated, such as being denied sanitary pads. Even if sanitary pads are available, a prisoner may be subjected to medical negligence during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Additionally, there are no female officers in the women’s prison administration: there are only male officers and security personnel, and female wardens sometimes, but only officers and security personnel conduct the search process. This is also the case of vaginal examinations and virginity tests that women prisoners are forced to undergo before being placed in prison.
The conditions of detention and imprisonment are currently based on degrading the prisoner’s dignity. This is an approach adopted by the security authorities while dealing with everyone in Egypt. The Egyptian regime is authoritarian and patriarchal: when arrested, women are dealt with on the basis that they have committed the crime of being interested in working in politics or public affairs, and that they must be punished for it. The regime takes advantage of the women’s fear of defamation on the grounds that society will later reject ex-female prisoners as the idea of the so-called “female political prisoner” is uncommon in Egypt.
Solafa Magdy is TIMEP’s ninth Bassem Sabry Democracy Fellow, where her mandate focuses on women in Egypt’s prisons.