In a setback for the country’s burgeoning #MeToo movement, 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.
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 #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.
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.
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. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)