Thousands of Sexual Violence Victims Share Their Stories

Main photo: A mural on one of the pillars of the A1 highway overpass running parallel to Mohamed V Avenue in Tunis. Photo by Fadil Aliriza, May 31, 2019.

Thousands of Sexual Violence Victims Share Their Stories

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Tunis – Maisie Odone & Hanen Zrig

In early October a 19-year-old woman in Nabeul was walking to her highschool when she spotted a man in a car following her—“not the first time I find a man following me in a car,” according to a Facebook post she shared that was reviewed by Meshkal. She says in the post that she snapped a photo of his license plate while his car was stopped and then she approached the car.

“Before I reached [the car] I saw him in the car mirror, he had exposed himself…I turned on the camera and I photographed him when I reached him while he was like that…his pants were completely down and he had I-don’t-know-what in his hands and he was doing something weird while totally naked,” the post, shared late on October 10, 2019, read.

The post, accompanied by photos that show a man in a car naked from the waist down with cream on his hands, had been shared anonymously to a private Facebook group called Pour Elle and posted on the victim’s behalf at her request, according to several people familiar with the topic.

The victim did not know who the man was, but after the post was shared it went viral and many identified the man photographed as Zouheir Makhlouf, an incoming member of parliament for the Qalb Tounes party from the Nabeul district who happened to be wearing a shirt with the party logo in the photos.

A Facebook profile presenting itself as Zouheir Sadok Makhlouf using a photo of Zouheir Makhlouf responded to the incident in a Facebook post on October 11, 2019. While Meshkal was unable to verify that the Facebook page indeed belonged to Makhlouf or that Makhlouf wrote the post on October 11, that post—written in first-person as if by Makhlouf—claimed that photos shared of him on Facebook were in reality showing him urinating in a car. According to the post, he suffers from diabetes which forces him to urinate often, and he had been unable to find a place to do so. The original post could not be located as the profile was reportedly taken down subsequently, however some media outlets took screenshots of the post.

The event has triggered an online movement of mostly women sharing their own experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and violence, using the hashtag #EnaZeda, meaning ‘me too’ in Tunisian dialect. On October 15, the women’s rights organization Aswat Nissa [which means “Voices of Women” in Arabic] created a Facebook page for people to share their personal testimonies. The group has quickly grown in membership, with dozens of testimonies posted each day from the more than 18,000 members as of November 5.

Aswat Nissa’s communications officer, Sonia Ben Miled, described the case of Makhlouf as that of a Tunisian Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who was initially accused, in October 2017 of sexually assaulting 13 women, which sparked the #MeToo movement around the world.

“Here we had a young girl who had the courage and the reflex to take pictures of her harasser and she broke this wall of silence that we all have. This group is the opportunity for all of these people to do the same thing,” Ben Miled told Meshkal.

Many of the members of the #EnaZeda page posted personal testimonies of abuse. The page has also been used to share ideas for how families and society in general might approach issues of sexual abuse with children. Psychologists have also shared stories on the page summarizing the cases of patients who, as a result of the mass online posting, have finally been able to discuss instances of sexual abuse and violence.

Some of the testimonies have been shared directly by the Facebook accounts of individuals, while others have messaged the moderators of the page their testimonies to be published anonymously.

One testimony on the page was the account of a young woman who said that she was molested by her uncle. According to the post, shared anonymously on October 21 by the page moderators, the woman told her mother what had happened, but, as the woman recalls “she didn’t believe me. I remained silent for a long period of time.” Years later, when the victim revealed what had happened to other members of her family, she found that other family members had been victims of abuse at the hands of the same uncle, including her mother herself.

“Sexual harassment is both the one who commits the act and the other who keeps silent. We should fight against Zouheir Makhlouf and not let him sit in the parliament,” the woman concluded in her post.

Another testimony was shared by a young man, who said he was molested by a friend of his father as they swam in the sea.

“I started screaming, pretending as if I were drowning, until my father came and saved me,” the man stated in his post on the #EnaZeda page under his own name on Sunday, November 3. The man didn’t tell his father what had happened. He explained this decision not to recount his experience until now saying in the post: “I was ignorant about my rights, and I was ashamed because our society has taught us since childhood that these kind of sexual problems are a taboo. Unfortunately sexual repression…makes people forget all about their social relationships, all respect, affection, and friendship; they only think about their disgusting sexual desires.”

On October 21, one man posted several stories about rapes that he had witnessed happening regularly in prisons, mostly in the Mornaguia prison.

According to the narrator and witness, one victim who had been jailed for vandalizing mosques was raped by fellow inmates daily “until he became like a dead body.”

The narrator of the post said that he approached a social worker in the prison to try and stop the abuse he was witnessing.

“When I talked to the social worker, he told me: ‘The young guy is an atheist, it doesn’t matter,’” he recounted in the post.

“The EnaZeda [movement] showed how the family as the pillar of the patriarchy is a space of abuse and violence. Conservatives always use the family and family values to undermine women’s rights and LGBTQ community rights. Well the stories shared in the group are telling a lot on the hypocrisy of our ‘conservative’ ‘Muslim’ society,” Ikram Ben Said, the founder of Aswat Nissa, told Meshkal by email.

On October 24, a group calling itself the Coalition Against Sexual Harassment, made up of 24 different women’s and human rights organizations, gave a press conference at the headquarters of Aswat Nissa. Present at the conference were the lawyers for Makhlouf’s victim, whose name is not being publicized. While Makhlouf has, since the incident, been the target of more than one lawsuit, the coalition is concerned about Makhlouf benefiting from parliamentary immunity once he is sworn in to his position as member of parliament when the new legislature takes its seats, likely in November.

In a press release, the coalition called on the parliament to “work together seriously with requests to lift immunity, especially in cases of sexual violence committed against women.” The statement also says that sexual harassment on “women and girls…undermines their dignity, physical and psychological integrity, as well as hindering them from enjoying their rights and exercising their normal lives.”

The coalition underlined the need to encourage victims to report cases of abuse and violence, to “expose the phenomenon of sexual harassment and support its victims.”

Many popular press outlets have reported on the recent case looking only at the issue of sexual harassment. Le Temps, a Tunisian French-language daily newspaper, commented in a report on October 24 that “the problem of sexual harassment has become perennial.” The paper also commented on the issue of impunity for politicians, noting that in Tunisian democracy, “some think that all abuses are permitted, in the pretext that women, and others, are easy prey.”

For Malek Lakhal cofounder of literary magazine Asameena, the media coverage of #EnaZeda is frustrating, just as it was frustrating when a first, smaller wave of #MeToo testimonies came out during the global 2017 movement. Lakhal says that many reports are treating sexual violence as if it were a phenomenon that had just emerged.

“I was actually rather annoyed with MeToo because it was as if everyone had suddenly just discovered that there was this thing called sexual harassment… No, it’s just that you don’t listen to half of the population,” Lakhal told Meshkal.

The #EnaZeda Facebook page has, however, opened up a new space for discussing what often amount to serious crimes. One of the page’s moderators is Rania Said, a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Binghamton University. Said was surprised at how quickly the page grew.

“It was a bit scary. There were 11,000 people” who had joined the group as of October 24, Said told Meshkal. By November 5, that number had increased to over 18,000.

The page has not been a space solely for stories of sexual harassment. Many women and men alike have been sharing stories of rape and incest on the page too.

For Said, that these cases were so widespread came as a shock.

“I didn’t expect it to be as rampant. It turns out they’re actually very common,” Said said.

“We have every kind of sex and violence you could imagine in the group. They’re very hard to read,” Ben Miled said.

Said described staying up until four in the morning reading accounts.

While this has been difficult for many to process, both agree that the page also has been a very supportive space, and, for Ben Miled, “it’s a way to help each other by reading what other people went through.”

“The EnaZeda movement reminded us of the power of story telling and the power of women and marginalized communities standing up for their rights in a spirit of solidarity and sisterhood,” Ikram Ben Said wrote to Meshkal in an email interview. “72,000 stories in just 28 days were able to break the silence and confront the taboo.”

Rania Said said that she takes inspiration from Tarana Burke, attributed with founding the MeToo movement, long before the Weinstein scandal in 2017.

“I love how she defines the movement as empowerment through empathy,” Said stated.

In 2017, at the time of the Weinstein scandal in the United States, there was a MeToo movement in Tunisia as well. That one, according to Said, “didn’t really pick up. It was associated with Hollywood. This one is local. This time people noticed it’s happening in our houses.”

At the same time that women are speaking out about their experiences, Aswat Nissa is trying to speed up the process of prosecuting Zouheir Makhlouf. Ben Miled explained that “it’s taking a long time. I don’t know if it’s the normal way or not.”

The group would like for Makhlouf to face prosecution and sentencing before Makhlouf receives parliamentary immunity.

“Time is running out,” Ben Miled explained.

In Tunisia, victims of violence and sexual harassment often struggle to find justice.

“It is very hard for a victim to go to the police station and report a sexual harassment or violence case. Most of the time it is not taken seriously. The policeman, or women are going to judge them and ask them questions, not in a tactful way,” Ben Miled said.

For Lakhal, cases of harassment are not taken as seriously as other crimes. Lakhal recounted to Meshkal the story of a friend who was harassed that had to find another way to get the police interested in addressing her case.

“If she went to police saying he harassed me, they wouldn’t care. So she said he stole her phone,” Lakhal said.

Tunisia does have laws in place against sexual violence. In 2017, law 58, for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was passed. Article 226 of this law addresses sexual harassment. According to this law, sexual harassment is punishable by 2 years of imprisonment, and a 5,000 dinar fine, which is doubled in cases against children or relatives. Sexual harassment in this law is defined as “all aggression of others by acts or words, which carry sexual connotations which would damage their dignity, or their decency, and that which has the aim of submitting the sexual desires of the perpetrator, or others or exert against them a pressure which would reduce their capacity to resist.”

Said called the law “a legal arsenal that can help us. Police need to be educated to handle this from the start.”

However, the problem is that “the law’s not really implemented,” according to Ben Miled.

In the press release issued by the Coalition Against Sexual Harassment, the group also highlighted that according to the Centre for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF by its French acronym), 97 percent of instances of sexual violence and abuse go unreported.

Aswat Nissa sees an opportunity to bring the existing legal arsenal into practice by calling for the process against Makhlouf to be sped up, for the law to be enforced in what is a very visible and highly publicized case.

“This young girl is facing a public figure. It’s very symbolic,” explained Ben Miled. Importantly here, there is proof: the photographs that the victim took. That kind of proof is hard to come by in sexual harassment cases, according to Ben Miled.

In their press release, the coalition called for laws to be taken seriously by the judiciary, and also expressed the need for victims of sexual harassment to be encouraged to report it.

Lakhal, the editor of Asameena, however, argues that working with the judiciary is not enough. She points to how long it has taken for there to be any action against Makhlouf.

“See how long it takes the Tunisian police to arrest this guy. But the Tunisian police, if they see you eating in the middle of the day in Ramadan, they will arrest you. If they catch you having sex outside of marriage, or gay sex, they will arrest you,” Lakhal explained.

Rather than working with the police, Lakhal suggests that there is the need for more radical action: popular protest.

“The justice system is made against you. What are you going to do except asking it to change… For me you have to force it to change,” Lakhal told Meshkal. “You create movements, fights, opposition. You put pressure, and I think pressure has got to be clearly oppositional, and also popular. It shouldn’t be a few recommendations at the end of a document, at the end of a Powerpoint.”

Meshkal asked Ben Miled whether protest on the streets, rather than working alongside the judiciary might be a better option.

“Protesting could be a good thing,” she responded, but she was less sure that it offered a solution.

“I think it takes a lot of time and energy and advocacy,” Ben Miled said.

In their legal campaigning, Aswat Nissa is determined to continue.

“We are not stopping. Even he [Makhlouf] gets immunity. We are not stopping,” Ben Miled said.

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.