TUNIS, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Tunisian politician accused of sexual harassment gained legal immunity on Wednesday when he was sworn in as a new member of the national parliament, in a setback for the country’s burgeoning #MeToo movement.
Zouheir Makhlouf faces possible charges of sexual harassment and public indecency after a 19-year-old student posted photos on social media purportedly showing him masturbating in his car outside her high school.
The accusation, which Makhlouf has denied, sparked outrage and prompted thousands of Tunisian women to share their experiences of sexual harassment using the hashtag #EnaZeda, which means #MeToo.
A private Facebook group, #EnaZeda, set up by the feminist organisation Aswat Nissa for victims to recount instances of harassment, now has 21,600 members.
“If he gets immunity, this would make parliament a place to flee from charges,” said the alleged victim’s lawyer Naima Chabbouh of the law giving new MPs parliamentary immunity.
“This would be impunity.”
Contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Makhlouf declined to comment. He has previously denied harassment and said the photo posted on social media shows him urinating in a bottle because he is diabetic.
A spokesman for his party, Qalb Tounes, declined to give an official statement but said that “the affair is still open”.
The case is currently being examined by a magistrate and Chabbouh said its fate would depend on how the judge interpreted the law on immunity for parliamentarians.
It can be interpreted as only covering MPs’ actions while in office, but another, wider interpretation could lead to the case being dropped, said Chabbouh.
The global #MeToo movement kicked off on social media two years ago as women began spontaneously sharing their stories of sexual abuse and harassment in the wake of a Hollywood abuse scandal.
It swiftly spread to other countries, including France, where it was named #BalanceTonPorc or “expose your pig” and Italy, which used the hashtag #QuellaVoltaChe or “that time when”.
In Tunisia, which has some of the most progressive laws governing women’s rights in the Middle East and a strong traditional of popular protest, the Makhlouf case has opened up a debate about sexual harassment.
Aswat Nissa is now compiling a legal case against a university professor that numerous women in the group accused of harassment, said Nawrez Ellafi, who manages the #EnaZeda campaign, at a protest outside parliament in Tunis on Wednesday
“We knew this was a problem, but we weren’t aware of the scale,” she said outside parliament, where she joined about 30 protesters, some carrying placards that read, “A harasser should not be a lawmaker”.
“Practically all women here [in Tunisia] have experienced some sort of violence, it could be in the road, in the metro or in their family,” said another protester, Israa Rahmani. (Reporting by Layli Foroudi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)