Tunisia’s #MeToo Started Outside a High School. Will It End in Court?

TUNIS — The imbalance of power seemed unmistakable. On one side, a prominent politician, freshly elected to Parliament. On the other, a 19-year-old student who accused him of sexually harassing her outside her high school.

The student’s accusation — initially posted, with photographic evidence, to a private Facebook group — prompted not just shock and disgust, but also an outpouring of support on social media that is quickly becoming Tunisia’s answer to the #MeToo movement. Many of the posts carried the hashtag #EnaZeda, Tunisian dialect for #MeToo.

Women of every age and social background started to share their experiences of harassment and abuse, sometimes anonymously, often for the first time, in a private #EnaZeda group that has grown to have more than 17,000 members and through a public Facebook page with more than 70,000 posts and comments.

But whether the #EnaZeda movement will have a long-term impact to match its rapid rise may depend on the fate of the legal case around the student’s accusation, which remains at an early stage, with formidable obstacles ahead.

In Nabeul, the coastal city where the student took the photographs on Oct. 10, the public prosecutor opened a public indecency and sexual harassment case without waiting for a formal complaint, citing the prominence of the accused.

The politician, Zouheir Makhlouf, denies doing anything untoward and has not been charged with a crime. And with no charges or hearing date announced, the case may soon run out of time: Once lawmakers take their seats, expected on Nov. 13, Mr. Makhlouf may be able to claim parliamentary immunity.

“It is truly a race to get something from the judge before the abuser takes his seat,” said Naima Chabbouh, one of the lawyers for the student, whose name has not been made public, as is common in such cases in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s Constitution gives lawmakers immunity from prosecution only on issues connected to their parliamentary function, Ms. Chabbouh added, “but, depending on the judge, the interpretation of the article can be broadened.”

Malek Ben Jaafar, another of the student’s lawyers, said, “We are pushing for it to be considered as an issue of sexual harassment and not just public indecency because it could set a legal precedent and actually encourage other women to file a complaint.”

Tunisia has a proud recent tradition of spontaneous protest leading to real change. The Arab Spring revolts began here in late 2010 after a suicide protest by a fruit seller.

The uprising led to the replacement of the country’s longtime autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, with a democracy that recently completed its second set of free presidential elections.

Tunisia has also been one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world on women’s rights. Measures such as a law combating violence against women, passed in 2017, provide a safety system for women who want to denounce abuse, harassment and violence based on their gender.

But in 97 percent of sexual harassment cases, either the victim does not file an official complaint or the alleged attacker avoids punishment, according to a 2017 report by the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women, which operates under the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs. More recent statistics are not available.

“It is still really difficult to prove there was sexual harassment,” said Fadoua Braham, a lawyer who has handled several harassment cases. “Even if the law punishes it and gives several definitions for it, the most difficult for women is to get the proof and also to stay strong during the judicial process, which is often an ordeal,” she added.

“In the cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, for instance, women who speak out are often not supported by their employer, who fears for the reputation of their company,” she said. “Worse than that, women can be targeted by their own abusers for defamation when they had the courage to file a complaint.”

The photographic evidence could make such an outcome less likely in this case.

As she was walking back to school from her lunch break, the 19-year-old student wrote on Facebook, she noticed that a car appeared to be following her. She took out her cellphone.

As she moved closer, snapping photographs of the license plate, she saw who was inside the car: a local politician, elected to Parliament days earlier, with his trousers down and ointment or cream on one hand.

Mr. Makhlouf, who made his reputation as a human rights advocate, maintains there is an innocent explanation: He says he is diabetic and frequently needs to urinate while on the move and that he was applying cream to treat an irritation.

The #EnaZeda hashtag began appearing on Twitter shortly after the student posted the pictures. Later, her supporters created a Facebook page with the same hashtag inviting women to publish their experiences, anonymously if they wished.

Aswat Nissa, a women’s rights organization, then created a private Facebook group that receives accounts from women daily. The association is an administrator of the group; it checks the accounts sent in private messages and publishes them publicly, anonymously if requested.

“We did not expect so many testimonies to arrive and so many requests to join the group,” said Sonia Ben Miled, the communication manager of Aswat Nissa. “It has been overwhelming but at the same time so rewarding. It shows how much women needed to talk and the fact that it was to support the victim in the first place created a real strength based on solidarity.”

Hajer L, 25, a director’s assistant who did not want her last name published because she feared reprisals in her workplace, was among those who spoke out for the first time on the group.

“Since the scandal, I wanted to share what I lived as well on a daily basis,” she said: “A man in the subway touching him near me or a director making comments about my breasts looking like leeks in front of a crew during shooting, or another assistant taking my hands in his and mimicking a fellation while I hand him work documents.”

“It could go on forever,” she added. “#EnaZeda made me feel not alone for the first time. Some of us got used to daily harassment in the street — #EnaZeda showed that this is not O.K., and we should not get used to it at all.”

Both the Facebook page and the private group are open to men. The idea is to include anyone who wants to testify about abuse.

“The beauty of the movement is its spontaneity and the fact that it belongs to no one,” said Najma Kousri Labidi, one of the founders of the EnaZeda Facebook page. “It is not just about #MeToo but more about women being fed up all over the world with the way their access to a male public space is limited. Women in Egypt spoke up about this issue years ago, for instance.”

“We also talked about this before in Tunisia,” she said. “We made awareness campaigns for sexual harassment in public transportation, but #EnaZeda has managed what no feminist association could do by gathering so many testimonies and a national outcry in a short time.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the accounts revealed by #EnaZeda will result in legal cases, and how much of a cultural shift the movement can create in what is generally a conservative country.

Adel Dhahri, 34, a policy researcher, posted a message of support in the group.

“EnaZeda and similar initiatives will not have a real impact on sexual harassment unless we start targeting men, educating them and changing their behavior,” he said.

Aswat Nissa is planning an #EnaZeda demonstration in front of Parliament on Nov. 13, to protest the prospect of Mr. Makhlouf taking his seat without a court judgment.

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