"Stalkers shouldn't make laws," a group of Tunisian women chanted in protest of the swearing-in of a lawmaker who was recently under investigation for sexual harassment.
On Wednesday, Zouheir Makhlouf gained legal immunity as he joined the national parliament without so much as a scratch. The MP, who won a seat in Tunisia's Oct. 6 elections to represent Nabeul, a coastal town located 60 kilometers from the country's capital Tunis, sparked a nationwide campaign against harassment last month. The accusations came following a video of him "masturbating in his car" outside a high school was shared online by a 19-year-old student. It prompted the launch of #EnaZeda, which is Tunisian Arabic for #MeToo, under which many women shared their testimonies of sexual harassment in the country. A private Facebook group has seen over 21,000 women discuss their own struggles with harassers.
Soon after the movement gained momentum, the prosecutor general of the town then opened an investigation into Makhlouf on grounds of "sexual harassment and moral injury." But it seems as though the investigation has been tossed aside.
In light of the MP's return to parliament, women took to the streets to protest Makhlouf's role as a lawmaker when he's been apparently pardoned of harassment himself. The protesters stood outside parliament on Wednesday, carrying placards in their hands and anger in their hearts.
What does his role mean for the #EnaZeda movement? What does it mean for women in Tunisia?
It seems as though Makhlouf has walked free after being questioned for alleged sexual harassment and public indecency. He previously denied the accusations against him, claiming he was urinating in a bottle as he is diabetic.
Protesters fear that the MP will enjoy immunity by any future allegations brought against him by women.
"Members enjoy parliamentary immunity but are subject to arrest in case of a flagrant delicto," according to Tunisia's constitution. Article 68 of the constitution states that no sitting MP can be "arrested or tried for their opinions... or for actions taken in connection with their parliamentary duties," with no mention of sexual harassment as an exception to the law.
"If he gets immunity, this would make parliament a place to flee from [criminal] charges," Naima Chabbouh, the lawyer of the alleged 19-year-old victim, told Reuters in response to the Tunisian law.
The immunity law can either be "interpreted as only covering MPs' actions while in office, but another, wider interpretation could lead to the case being dropped," Chabbouh told the news organization.
The protesters also called for more stringent implementation of the July 2017 anti-violence law. That year, the country's parliament passed a bill that protects women from violence in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as a "landmark step for women's rights" at the time. The law introduced criminal provisions and increased penalties for various forms of violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women. It also scrapped a loophole that allowed rapists to avoid prison by marrying their victims.
Organizations and officials got together to assess the law's implementation at the end of 2018. They reported several shortcomings including "logistical barriers that prevent women from filing complaints."
In Tunisia, 53 percent of women have experienced violence of some kind. Is having a lawmaker who has been accused of harassment in parliament going to help change that?