Can the Arab Spring’s Birthplace Usher in a #MeToo for Africa?

Women wave Tunisian flags during a celebration of National Women's Day in Tunis.

Source Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Getty

Why you should care

Because if Tunisian women can win, the rest of the region could follow.

A two-story-high banner hangs over the lavish Avenue Habib Bourguiba, boasting “Tunis Capital of Arab Woman” in three languages, but the story on the street — Tunisia’s most famous — is very different. Walking the palm tree-lined boulevard between a sprawling open-air market and a Catholic cathedral, local women speak candidly about the sexual harassment they face every day.

“It’s common, and often you can’t do anything,” says one woman, Hamrouni Mariem. They encounter the problem on public transit, in businesses, whether they are alone or with family or friends, adds Amani, a law student who asked we not share her last name for fear of reprisal. “You can’t classify the harassers. It ranges from the well-educated to the less educated, the poor, rich, whether in private companies or government administrations,” she says.  

The good news? Women are organizing and speaking up in droves, with thousands telling their own stories of harassment through the social media campaign #EnaZeda, the Tunisian dialect version of #MeToo. Long-simmering gender inequality issues were inflamed after a newly elected MP was caught on video masturbating in front of a teenage girl outside a high school in October. The bad news? The accused, Zouheir Makhlouf, has been sworn into the national Parliament despite the accusations in court against him, a move that legal experts say grants him legal immunity going forward.

This movement has a lot more resonance in the Arab world than this Hollywood-based #MeToo movement.

Sarah Yerkes, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Yet while several global media reports would suggest that’s where the story ends, what those accounts are missing is the grassroots momentum the movement has gained, extending well beyond the courts. What started on Twitter has expanded to a private Facebook group of more than 25,000 men and women sharing their stories of abuse. And what began in Tunisia has evolved into a cross-regional movement, with women from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Morocco, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt, adding their voices.

Its rapid growth is reminiscent of 2011, when a young Tunisian fruit vendor lit himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid and set all of Africa ablaze with what became known as the Arab Spring. The fact that it is not a #MeToo movement centered around America, which is culturally and physically an ocean away, could make all the difference. Instead, this movement is rooted in Tunisia’s own struggle. The country, often lauded as an emblem for women’s rights in the region, passed a historic law to combat gender-based violence against women just two years ago. Last year, Tunis elected the first female mayor of a capital city in the modern Arab world.

National Women's Day in Tunisia

A woman raises a bunch of flowers during a celebration of National Women’s Day in Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis.

Source Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Getty

“This movement has a lot more resonance in the Arab world than this Hollywood-based #MeToo movement,” says Sarah Yerkes, a Tunisia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We are very positive it’s going to work, because it is a spontaneous movement,” adds Nawrez Ellafi, who has been managing the #EnaZeda Facebook group for Aswat Nissa, a Tunisia-based women’s rights nongovernment organization that has provided legal support for the young woman allegedly harassed by Makhlouf.

Women across Tunisia have met in apartments and cafes, plotting the way forward over local delicacies like brik and bamboulini. Aswat Nissa passed out T-shirts and signs for protests outside the Tunisian Parliament and judicial courts, and has created a “caravan” touring nearby cities to spread awareness of the #EnaZeda movement. In mid-November, their representatives stormed Les Dunes Electronique — an electronic music festival taking place in the south Tunisian desert that famously inspired Star Wars‘ Tatooine — to pass out flyers, tell stories of sexual abuse survivors and attract further coverage.

Their urgency to keep the story alive is necessary. After Tunisia’s second-ever free presidential elections in October, the country’s newly elected President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Habib Jemli have until mid-December to form a governing coalition out of a deeply fractured Parliament. (No party earned more than a quarter of the 217 seats.) The transition of power threatens to push the #EnaZeda story out of the public sphere. Politicians “are trying not to take any special position on this until alliances are made,” Ellafi says.

There are other challenges facing the #EnaZeda movement. Enforcement of the 2017 anti-harassment law remains weak, say many activists. Aswat Nissa is advocating for more funding for enforcement in the 2020 budget, while others say they want a stronger police presence and justice system. “If you take one harasser and punish him seriously … others will think twice,” argues Amani.

Iman Braham, a French Tunisian woman who previously worked in Tunis but recently moved to Lyon, France, is skeptical that other nations like Algeria or Morocco have the democratic infrastructure necessary to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps. “You cannot be an example if nobody follows,” she says. And she notes that the #EnaZeda Facebook group hasn’t done enough to protect victims who share their stories, with some women facing abuse or skepticism from (mostly) men posting in the comments.

Ellafi admits that the nonprofit’s eight-person staff — five of which are working specifically on the #EnaZeda effort — has at times struggled to moderate the 25,000-member Facebook page. They ban abusive users when they see them, but “we want the dialogue to continue, even between victims and others who may not keep their minds open to the issues here,” she says.

As for whether Tunisia can lead a #MeToo movement across the region, Yerkes says the embers to stoke the fire are already there: Protests in recent years in countries such as Uganda and Kenya (#MyDressMyChoice), Nigeria (#BeingFemaleinNigeria) and South Africa (#NakedProtests) have fallen dormant, but they could come back to life if real progress is made in Tunisia. It will take more than a social media campaign, but “now that other people in the Arab world are reading this and seeing this,” Yerkes believes movements will arise in other countries.

So, once again, Tunisia might provide the spark.

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