Nov 14 2019

Tunisian ‘Me Too’ movement protests against accused harasser entering Parliament

Protesters fear Zouheir Makhlouf could use parliamentary immunity to avoid sexual harassment investigation

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A newly-elected Member of the Parliament takes oath during the first session of the new parliament in Tunisia on Wednesday. EPA

A large group of Tunisian women rallied outside the country’s Parliament on Wednesday to protest against the arrival of a politician accused of sexual harassment.

Representing the #EnaZeda, or #MeToo movement, dozens of protesters turned out to oppose Zouheir Makhlouf, who was recently investigated for sexual harassment and public indecency.

They put up an arch of red and black balloons reading “#EnaZeda” and carried signs with slogans including “No means no”.

Other banners included “Clothes are not Consent”, “It’s my right to be here” and “Reveal what you have to tell”, directed at Mr Makhlouf.

Demonstrators whistled and chanted, “Oh, Makhlouf, get out of Parliament” and said: “The law exists but where is its implementation?”

One young protester, Khaoula Ksiksi, wore a T-shirt that read: “The harasser can’t be a lawmaker. Apply the law.”

Ms Ksiksi said she joined the demonstration as a feminist frustrated with what she saw as an attitude that normalised harassment in Tunisia.

“Makhlouf harassed a student and now he’s going to become member of parliament, obtain immunity and get away with his crime, with total impunity,” she said.

“We want to raise our voices and stop this.”

Last month, the MP appeared in court over a video filmed by a woman. It allegedly showed him performing an obscene act in his car in front of a 19-year-old student outside a school.

It prompted hundreds of women to take to social networks using the hashtag #EnaZeda to speak out about abuse.

Women of all ages and social backgrounds have been sharing testimonies of harassment and abuse through private Facebook groups including one called #EnaZeda, which has more than 20,000 members.

Aswat Nissa, a women’s rights organisation, has reportedly collected more than 70,000 testimonies.

First-hand accounts of abuse, sometimes anonymous and often disclosed for the first time, are posted in the group page each day.

“At first it was just a few women daring to speak out, then more and more have found this safe space to expose their stories and talk about their traumas,” Ms Ksiksi said.

Haifa Dhouib, co-ordinator for the fight against gender-based violence at the Tunisian Women for Research on Development Association welcomed the campaign as “a bottom-up fire” that enabled women to break a taboo.

“Today, we are standing by women victims of sexual harassment to say that we will no longer stay silent, we will denounce any form of violence against women,” Ms Dhouib said.

But she that breaking the silence was not enough.

“We cannot restrict ourselves to making cases of abuse public,” Ms Dhouib said. “We really need to work with the victims through psychological and legal support, listening and other assistance.”

Mr Makhlouf, who denies any wrongdoing, is under investigation but protesters fear he could claim parliamentary immunity after taking his seat.

Published in The National on 14 November 2019

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