Tunisia’s #MeToo: Lawmaker faces sexual harassment hearing

NABEUL (Tunia) -- This week's landmark case helped to galvanize Tunisia’s #MeToo movement. It involved a legislator who was charged with sexual harassment as well as public indecency.

Tunisia’s #MeToo: Lawmaker faces sexual harassment hearing

NABEUL (Tunia) -- This week's landmark case helped to galvanize Tunisia’s #MeToo movement. It involved a legislator who was charged with sexual harassment as well as public indecency.

Feminist activists protested outside the courthouse shouting slogans and waving placards reading "My body, not a public place" in Tunisian dialect.

A schoolgirl posted photos of Zouhair Makhlouf (Qalb Tounes) on social media in 2019 showing him performing a sex act outside her high school.

Makhlouf was one of many flashpoints that 2019 saw, prompting thousands of Tunisians online to share their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. The #EnaZeda page on Facebook currently has more than 90,000 followers and is kept updated daily.

However, no high-profile figure has been charged with sex crimes -- at least not yet.

Makhlouf was spared prosecution due to his parliamentary immunity. President Kais Saied, who was also the president of Tunisia, froze the parliament in Tunisia and lifted political immunity from MPs. He also took on broad executive and legislative powers.

Makhlouf's immunity being revoked, he was summoned to his first hearing at Nabeul, south-west of Tunis, on Thursday.

Makhlouf denied all charges and did not attend the hearing. Makhlouf, who denies all charges, spoke to The Associated Press in a hospital. He said that his mother was ill and that he couldn't attend the hearing because he was not the only person in the family who had a car that could transport her to the clinic.

Activist Sara Medini stated to The Associated Press, that Aswat Nissa was protesting "in solidarity with the victim" and to criticize the time it took Makhlouf to file his legal proceedings. Aswat Nissa was the original administrator and monitor of the #EnaZeda social networking groups.

She stated, "It's been more than two years since any decision was made. There has been no progress." "It's time to say no impunity.

Sarra Ben Said, Aswat Nissa’s executive director, noted that Makhlouf had "substantial power in the area where he is being tried." We wanted to remind women that no matter what power your aggressor has against you or over you, justice can be sought and retribution can be taken.

Makhlouf claims he is innocent from sexual harassment. He says the photo was taken in error.

"All that's happening is the most horrible accusation I have ever heard." He says that he was three times imprisoned by the Ben Ali dictatorship (former President Zine El Abidine), but that this is the worst injustice he's suffered.

Makhlouf stated that it might be difficult for judges to resist what he described as immense public and political pressure. When asked about #EnaZeda he stated that "it's great to have an energetic civil society." They've done harm, they don’t listen to either side."

Naima Chabbouh is his lawyer. She said it was time for justice in this "protracted" case. The hearing will resume on Nov. 11.

Aya Aajmi (a close friend of the complainant and a law student aged 20), was sending photos from outside to her as she sat in courtroom. She was exhausted at the beginning of this whole thing. Aajmi said that she now feels strong and is happy to have people around her. She's going give energy and courage to other girls so they don't have to keep silent. If we keep doing acts like these, I believe we can change the country.

The Tunisian parliament adopted a law in 2017 that prohibited all forms of violence against women or girls. This, in theory, made it easier to prosecute domestic abuse cases and penalize sexual harassment in public places.

A 2017 report from the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women, published under the Ministry of Women and Families, shows that 97% of cases of sexual harassment do not result in a formal complaint.

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