A landmark case that helped fuel Tunisia’s #MeToo movement came to court this week, involving a lawmaker accused of sexual harassment and public indecency.
Feminist activists held a small protest in front of the court in Nabeul, south of the capital Tunis, chanting and waving banners that read “My body is not a public space.” The activists wore T-shirts and badges with the hashtag of their movement #EnaZeda, #MeToo in the Tunisian dialect.
In 2019, a schoolgirl posted photos on social media of Member of Parliament Zouhair Makhlouf, from the Qalb Tounes party, allegedly performing a sex act in his car in front of his high school.
The Makhlouf case was one of the hotbeds in 2019 that led thousands of Tunisians to share their personal experiences of sexual assault and harassment online. The #EnaZeda Facebook page currently has more than 90,000 likes and is updated daily.
But no high-profile figure has faced prosecution for alleged sexual wrongdoing, until now.
Makhlouf avoided prosecution at the time due to his parliamentary immunity. In July, President Kais Saied froze the Tunisian parliament and lifted the political immunity of the deputies, in addition to assuming broad executive and legislative powers.
With his immunity revoked, Makhlouf was summoned to face his first hearing on Thursday.
Makhlouf, who denies all the charges, did not appear for the hearing. In an interview with The Associated Press at a local hospital, Makhlouf said her mother had fallen ill and was unable to attend because he was the only one in the family with a car that could take her to the clinic.
Activist Sara Medini said the activists had come to court to protest “in solidarity” with the victim, as well as to denounce the time it took for the Makhlouf legal process to begin.
“Now it is more than two years and no decision was made, there have been no steps forward,” he said. “It is time to say no to impunity. We must denounce this phenomenon of harassment and rape ”.
Sarra Ben Said, executive director of the feminist group Aswat Nissa that originally managed and monitored the social media groups #EnaZeda, noted that Makhlouf “had substantial power in the region where he is being tried. We wanted to tell women that whatever power your abuser uses or has over you, you can always seek justice and retribution. “
Makhlouf insists he is innocent of sexual harassment and says that while the photo is real, it was a misunderstanding.
“Everything that is happening is the worst accusation of my life. I was imprisoned under the dictatorship of Ben Ali (former President Zine El Abidine) three times, but this is the worst injustice I have ever suffered, it is stupid and absurd, ”he says.
Makhlouf said it could be a challenge for a judge to resist what he called immense public and political pressure against him. When asked about #EnaZeda, he said that “it is good to have an energetic civil society. But they have hurt, they do not listen to both sides. “
The lawyer for his accuser, Naima Chabbouh, said it was time for justice to decide on this “protracted case.” The hearing will resume on November 11.
The author’s close friend, Aya Aajmi, a 20-year-old law student, was sending her photos of the demonstration outside while she was sitting inside the courtroom. “At the beginning of all this, she was simply exhausted. But today she feels very strong and is happy that people are with her, ”said Aajmi. “She is going to give a lot of energy and courage to other girls so that they do not remain silent. I think we can change things in the country if we continue with acts like this. “
In 2017, the Tunisian parliament passed a law prohibiting all forms of violence against women and girls, which in theory facilitates the prosecution of domestic abuse and the imposition of sanctions for sexual harassment in public spaces.
According to a 2017 report by the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women, under the Ministry of Women and the Family of the country, in 97 percent of cases of sexual harassment the victim does not file a complaint official.