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#MeToo: Tunisian MP sentenced to a year in jail for sexually harassing a minor

Zouhair Makhlouf was found guilty of indecent assault on Friday in a case that inspired Tunisia's #EnaZeda movement
Members of the Tunisian MeToo movement, #EnaZeda, protest in Tunis against sexual harassment, 30 November 2019 (AFP)

A Tunisian member of parliament was sentenced to a year in prison on Friday for sexually harassing a schoolgirl, the victim’s lawyer said, in a case that ignited the country's #MeToo movement.

Zouhair Makhlouf, an independent member of the currently suspended assembly, was photographed in October 2019 by a high-school student, who was a minor at the time, apparently masturbating in his car in the coastal town of Nabeul. 

The student posted the pictures on social media and said that Makhlouf had followed her to school. She went on to press sexual harassment and indecent assault charges against him. 

The images went viral and sparked an outpouring of others sharing their sexual harassment stories and experiences. This led to the launch in Tunisia of #EnaZeda, Tunisian Arabic for "me too", the movement inspired by the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault investigation in 2017. 

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As the stories circulated, an #EnaZeda Facebook page allowed people to post their experiences of being sexually harassed, groped, molested or raped in schools, workplaces, on public transport or in public places. 

When Makhlouf's trial began on 1 November, dozens of women protested in front of the court in Nabeul, chanting, “My body is not a public space!”

But Makhlouf argued throughout the trial that he was diabetic and needed to urinate in a bottle at the time the student took the picture. 

The victim’s lawyer, Naima Chabbouh, said that Makhlouf had been found guilty of indecent assault after a court session lasting late into Thursday evening. 

Makhlouf was initially charged with sexual harassment before the indictment was reduced to indecent exposure, then reinstated following public pressure.

In 2020, a group of Tunisian NGOs wrote to the country’s High Council of Magistrates, alleging a string of procedural violations that they said were aimed at protecting Makhlouf. 

But the decision to speak out against sexual harassment in Tunisia is often controversial.

In one case, a teacher at the Lycee Rue de Russie high school in the centre of Tunis was detained on charges of sexually harassing a female student. When another teacher, Jamila Chemlali, supported the harassed student, she was subjected to threats and intimidation by her colleagues, according to the women’s rights group, Aswat Nissa.

But reacting to Friday’s ruling, Aswat Nissa said it was “pleased with this historic judgment.

“This sentencing represents a triumph for the feminist movement in Tunisia and for all survivors of gender-based violence, as it puts an end to the culture of impunity,” it said in a statement.