In Sexual Harassment Case, Many Teachers Support Accused Colleague

Teacher Jamila Chemlali (L) and Nour Jihen Becheikh, Aswat Nissa’s legal consultant (R), speak at a press conference in Tunis on January 30, 2020. Photo by Morgan Beard.

After a teacher at the Rue de Russie high school accused of sexual harassing a student was detained and charged with crimes relating to sexual harassment, the mother of the student and another teacher at the school supporting the student have faced threats from the detained teacher’s colleagues, according to the Aswat Nissa [Women’s Voices] NGO.

The details of what has been called a public smear campaign against teacher Jamila Chemlali were outlined at a press conference hosted by Aswat Nissa on Friday, January 30, in a hotel in downtown Tunis. Chemlali said she had been approached by a student who claimed to have been sexually harassed by another teacher. Chemlali then brought the case to school administrators. Since then, she says she has faced death threats and abuse from colleagues on social media. The name of the accused teacher and of the victim have not been published in media accounts.

In an interview with private radio Mosaique FM on January 17, Fatma Helal, the regional director for education in Tunis, explained that a teacher from Rue de Russie high school had been arrested on January 10 and was placed in pre-trial detention after a female student’s parents filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. Helal clarified that the incidents surrounding the case dated back a year before and had been referred to administrative authorities and “necessary administrative steps” had been taken. According to Aswat Nissa, the newest criminal charges filed relate to alleged violations of law 58 passed in 2017 that updates and brings together existing laws under the category of violence against women.

In response to the detention of their colleague, several teachers represented by the Tunis branch of the Secondary Education Union went on strike on January 17 demanding his immediate release. A press release on January 20 bearing the logo of the national umbrella union the UGTT and signed by the secretary general of the regional branch of the teachers’ union Mounir Kheireddine, called the case a “malicious” one, adding that “certain media and political parties forcibly involved themselves in search of cheap exploitation.” The same statement stressed the union’s support for combatting sexual harassment, but insisted allegations of such should not become a method of settling political scores.

While the name of the accused teacher has not been released in media reports, the teachers’ union has named the accused individual and announced their support for him, including planning a demonstration in front of the courthouse this Wednesday, February 12.

Meshkal was unable to reach a representative from the regional branch of the teachers’ union for comment. However, its general secretary Kheireddine, reiterated in an interview with private radio IFM that accusations made against their colleague are part of “a settling of political accounts.”

“What is strange in this case is that I was subjected to smear campaigns and death threats,” Jamila Chemlali, the teacher at Rue De Russie school who stood up for the student victim, said at the Aswat Nissa conference. “I was subjected to attempted violence inside the teachers’ room and continuous bullying on social media.”

According to Chemlali, the student was also subjected to extortion from some parties to drop the charges against the accused teacher.

“Instead of providing protection to the people involved in this sensitive sexual harassment case, including the victim, we see a horrendous mobilization against anyone who says a righteous word in favor of this lawsuit,” Chemlali added.

The mother of the alleged victim was also planning to attend the January 30 press conference, however she backed out after a public smear campaign and in light of ongoing threats that she and her family have been subjected to, explained Nour Jihen Becheikh, Aswat Nissa’s legal consultant.

Chemlali believes that many untold stories in Tunisian educational institutions still exist, and it has led to what she called “a normalization of sexual harassment.”

In an interview with Meshkal, Chemlali said that she “would like to call on my students and encourage them to speak up against sexual harassment. You need to stand for your right to study in a safe environment.”

“Such phenomenon goes against the principles of educational institutions… Many students also come to me to tell me about such incidents, but I always find myself incapable and with no mechanisms,” Chemlali told Meshkal.

Sonia Ben Miled, Aswaat Nissa’s communication officer told Meshkal that “right now, everything is in front of the judiciary power and we’re waiting for a final decision to be made… in a press release we made few days ago we called on the UGTT and its Secondary Education Syndicate to stop this kind of pressure on the judiciary power.”

Becheikh, the legal consultant for Aswat Nissa, also reiterated the commitment of both Aswat Nissa and the #EnaZeda campaign to support victims of sexual harassment, in light of what she called “the lack of responsiveness from official authorities and the frightening numbers that we are becoming aware of.”

The #EnaZeda movement has seen victims of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment recount their personal stories, often anonymously and online in a Facebook group of the same name that has about 21 thousand members as of November 13, 2019. The movement was launched in early October 2019 after Zouheir Makhlouf, a recently elected member of parliament for the Qalb Tounes party, was apparently photographed with his pants down and cream on his hands by a woman who alleged he had been following her in his car.

An oral testimony recorded by a high school student from Gabes was also presented during the January 30 Aswat Nissa press conference. The girl in the recording, who opted to remain anonymous, recounted how she was sexually harassed by her teacher last year.

“He would slip his hands on my back, stand behind me and grab my waist and many other similar acts,” the student said. “Unfortunately, the judiciary was not fair to me.”

Ben Miled noted that in this case from Gabes, despite having one witness to back up her story, the student’s case was dismissed in court.

The student from Gabes said she is now facing a defamation lawsuit filed against her by the teacher who assaulted her and that even though there are more students who are coming forward and alleging sexual harassment by the same teacher, they are routinely being dismissed by her high school’s headmaster.

Becheikh referred to the decision of teachers to strike in response to the judicial process as “a justification of sexual harassment despite the amount of violations this act bears on the sanctity of the body and human dignity. Also, despite its criminalization in law 58 which concerns the eradication of all forms of violence against women.”

However, Aswat Nissa was careful not to place the blame on the unions, and Ben Miled noted that they trust the UGTT and they want them to stop the pressure on the judiciary.

“In this case the victim was traumatized by the sexual harassment case and she was traumatized again as people don’t believe her and are carrying out a smear campaign against her,” Ben Miled added.

A teacher present in the press conference, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of similar backlash from colleagues, told Meshkal about an incident that dates back to 2004 where a student confided to her about her physics teacher sexually harassing her.

She said that back then, her school’s director asked her not to talk about it for fear of creating chaos. Eventually this student had to change her school while the teacher who allegedly did the harrasing remains until this day unpunished teaching in the same high school.

She said hearing Ms. Chemlali’s talk encouraged her a little bit because Chemlali did what she was unable to do back then: protect her student.