NABEUL, Tunisia (AP) — A landmark case that helped galvanize Tunisia’s #MeToo movement reached court this week, involving a legislator charged with sexual harassment and public indecency.
Feminist activists held a small protest outside the courthouse, shouting chants and waving placards that read “My body is not a public space.” The activists sported T-shirts and badges bearing the hashtag of their movement #EnaZeda, #MeToo in Tunisian dialect.
In 2019, a schoolgirl posted photos on social media of parliament member Zouhair Makhlouf, of the Qalb Tounes party, allegedly performing a sexual act in his car outside her high school.
Makhlouf’s case was one of the flashpoints in 2019 that prompted thousands of Tunisians to to share their personal experiences of sexual assault and harassment online. The #EnaZeda Facebook page currently has over 90,000 likes, and is updated daily.
But no high-profile figures have 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 political immunity for MPs, as well as taking on sweeping executive and legislative powers.
With his immunity revoked, Makhlouf was summoned to face his first hearing on Thursday at the courthouse in Nabeul, south of the capital Tunis.
Makhlouf, who denies all charges, did not appear at the hearing. In an interview with The Associated Press at a local hospital, Makhlouf said that his mother had been taken ill and he could not attend because he was the only one in the family with a car who could take her to the clinic.
Activist Sara Medini told The Associated Press that feminist group Aswat Nissa had come to protest “in solidarity” with the victim, as well as to denounce the length of time it took for Makhlouf’s legal proceedings to begin. Aswat Nissa originally administrated and monitored the #EnaZeda social media groups.
“Now it’s already more than two years and no decision was taken, there has been no step forward,” she said. “It is time to say no to impunity.”
Aswat Nissa’s executive director Sarra Ben Said noted that Makhlouf “had substantial power in the region where he’s being put on trial. We wanted to tell women that whatever powers your aggressor uses against you or has on 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.
“All that is happening is the worst accusation of my life. I was imprisoned under the (former President Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali dictatorship three times, but this is the worst injustice I’ve suffered, it’s stupid and absurd,” he says.
Makhlouf said it could be challenging for a judge to withstand what he called immense public and political pressure against him. Asked about #EnaZeda, he said “it’s good to have an energetic civil society. But they’ve done damage, they don’t listen to both sides.”
His accuser’s lawyer, Naima Chabbouh, said that it was time for justice to decide on this “protracted case.” The hearing is set to resume Nov. 11.
The complainant’s close friend, Aya Aajmi, a 20-year-old law student, was sending photos of the demonstration outside to her while she sat in the courtroom. “At the beginning of all this she was just exhausted. But today she feels very strong and she’s happy that people are with her,” said Aajmi. “She’s going to give a lot of energy and courage to other girls to not keep 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 outlawing all forms of violence against women and girls, in theory making it easier to prosecute domestic abuse and impose penalties on sexual harassment in public spaces.
According to a 2017 report by the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation, and Information on Women, which operates under the country’s Ministry of Women and Families, in 97% of sexual harassment cases the victim does not file an official complaint.