Footage of a politician appearing to masturbate in a car outside a secondary school in Tunisia has provoked the country’s own #MeToo movement.

Women and girls have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and rape on social media and held demonstrations in the North African nation. 

A 19-year-old school student shared a video in October of Zouheir Makhlouf, a member of the Qalb Tounes Party, apparently masturbating. But the politician refuted the allegations and insisted he was just about to urinate in a bottle, linking it to his diabetes.

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Images of the politician were captured by a student who alleges he had been harassing her. A public prosecutor launched a civil investigation into the issue but Mr Makhlouf is exempt from proper scrutiny because he has legal immunity due to being a member of the national parliament.

The hashtag #EnaZeda – which means #MeToo in Tunisian Arabic – has gained increasing traction on social media, with women wearing t-shirts and brandishing placards with the slogan emblazoned on.

Some 40,000 people have joined a private Facebook group established by Aswaat Nisaa, a non-governmental organisation which translates as “Women’s Voices”, where they can come forward to share experiences of sexual violence.

Allegations are levied against those in the police, military, university circles, family members of the victims, strangers and the press – with accusations spanning from being groped on public transport to incest.

“Tonight, I have cried all the tears from my body. Tonight, I was harassed and nobody took the trouble to react,” Lina Kaboudi wrote.

“Unlike all the other nights, I dared to respond to the perpetrator. I did not keep walking, pretending I had not heard. I stopped, and I held him to account”.

Tunisia – where the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprising started in late 2010 – is deemed to be at the forefront of gender equality in the Arab world. Legislation was introduced in 2017 which offered protection for women coming forward to report gender-based violence.

Nevertheless, stigma and taboo around sexual abuse continue to remain deeply ingrained in society. A 2017 report found the victim does not report the crime or the accused perpetrator dodges punishment in 97 per cent of sexual harassment cases.

Dima Dabbous, director of the Middle East and North Africa branch of Equality Now, a non government organisation which aims to promote the rights of women and girls, said: “This incident reveals a serious problem which is still taboo in Arab societies: sexual harassment is rampant but is not talked about and is underreported. 

“Complaints are not lodged through official legal channels, and barely any laws are in place that can properly deal with incidents, act as deterrents, or punish perpetrators. The international #MeToo movement, which quickly spread throughout the globe, did not take hold in the Arab region or spur similar women and girls to speak out, and this is for a number of cultural, legal, and political reasons.

“I am very happy that we are finally seeing an organised effort in Tunisia by many victims to talk about this phenomenon that targets women and girls, especially the most vulnerable ones – the young, students, those in low paid employment.”

Ms Dabbous said it was “about time” Arab women became part of a global movement to uncover harassers and hold them to account wherever they may exist in society. 

The Tunisian groundswell of support for women’s rights echoes the #MeToo movement – the most visible and widespread feminist movement of recent times – which exploded in late 2017 after a series of sexual assault allegations were made against men in Hollywood and a slew of other industries. Millions of women around the world shared their own stories of rape, assault and harassment.​

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