When a Tunisian student posted a video of one of the Arab country’s politicians harassing her outside her school, the footage went viral — prompting an outpouring of anger from women, a flood of similar stories online and even protests outside parliament.
Protesters gathered outside the national assembly this week to denounce Zouheir Makhlouf, a newly elected lawmaker accused of sexual harassment after a student posted video footage of him sitting in his car outside her school with his trousers around his knees. Demonstrators shouted slogans and carried placards saying “the sexual harasser must not legislate”.
Inspired in part by a global #MeToo campaign that exposed sexual predators in business, politics and the arts, the case has energised activists who say that not enough has been done to combat sexual harassment and prosecute perpetrators.
Tunisia has some of the Arab world’s most progressive laws, and prosecutors have launched an investigation into the allegations. But protesters fear that his swearing-in to parliament this week gives him immunity against prosecution.
“We want better application of the law, because justice is not being served,” said Nawrez Ellafi, from Aswat Nissa, the women’s organisation which called the protest outside parliament. “We are still getting the message that aggressors can enjoy impunity, especially if they have power and means. We are saying that it is not OK for someone accused of sexual harassment to represent Tunisian voters including women.” Mr Maklouf has denied any impropriety and said he was diabetic and was sometimes forced to urinate in a bottle because of his condition.
Mr Maklouf’s case should have been referred to a special investigative judge, some campaigners said. “The current procedure will take a lot of time and is not in the spirit of the law,” said Amna Guellal, Human Rights Watch researcher in Tunisia, referring to a 2017 law that criminalises all forms of violence against women and harassment in public spaces.
Aswat Nissa launched a Facebook group to collect testimonies from victims of sexual crimes. Named #EnaZeda which means “me too” in Tunisian Arabic, it has stunned even its creators by attracting an avalanche of stories posted by women, and sometimes men, detailing instances of harassment, child abuse and even assault. Ms Ellafi said it had been “overwhelmed” by the number of testimonies and people who had joined the closed group which now has some 21,000 members with another 10,000 awaiting the approval of the moderator.
The stories posted describe a vast range of experiences from the young girl forced by the owner of a cybercafe to watch pornography, to the mother being molested by an anaesthesiologist while giving birth.
Some of the victims say they are speaking for the first time. Others say their abusers were family members, and that relatives knew but turned a blind eye.
“From now on we want to give time to victims, to liberate their voices and to create a debate about a society infested with such phenomena,” said Ms Ellafi. “We have a full scale of victims from all ages, sexes, levels of education and social status.”
Ahlem Belhadj, a psychiatrist and women’s rights activist said #EnaZeda was a milestone in a long struggle for women’s rights in Tunisia. “We are now able to deal with more intimate topics like sexual violence, rape and incest,” she said. “These issues were difficult to talk about, but now Facebook allows more people to open up about them.”
Despite the stir #EnaZeda has created on social media, activists are disappointed with the lack of interest from domestic media.
“Media should be spreading awareness, but they are not doing it,” Ms Guellali said. “There were two protests in front of parliament on Wednesday — the one against harassment and another by those injured in the 2011 revolution. National television reported only the latter. It shows a lack of willingness and that there is a lot of work to be done.”
For Aswat Nissa, this is work it is determined to take on. Ms Ellafi has said it will invite victims to attend group meetings overseen by psychiatrists and help those who need it to hire lawyers. “We will do research based on the testimonies, to understand the whole phenomenon, and we will develop strategies to combat that we will even give to the government,” she said.