Last Wednesday, as the sun shone over Schaerbeek, protestors gathered outside the town's municipality after the feminist collective Les Sous-Entendues organised a rally in support of Sihame Haddioui, Schaerbeek's Councillor for Equality.
Haddioui had recently accused one of her male colleagues, Michel De Herde, the Councillor for Education, of rubbing her thighs and directing numerous sexual innuendos towards her during a municipal council meeting in December 2021.
De Herde has denied these allegations and the municipal council has voted against adopting any preventive measures, with the Mayor's Chief of Staff telling La DH that for the time being, the presumption of innocence must be upheld.
Given that one of the municipalities' responsibilities in Brussels is to maintain public order, this decision came as a blow to many women's rights activists.
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“Each time you hear a story like this, you're angry but it doesn't shock you anymore,” Anna Toumazoff, one of the participants of last week's protest told us. "However, this was sadly symbolic as we're talking about a Councillor for Equality, whose task it is to protect the rights of women in Schaerbeek, being assaulted by the Councillor for Education."
Toumazoff, who helped organise the demonstration with the Sous-Entendues collective, wanted to show her support for the Ecolo councillor. "We didn't want her (Sihame Haddioui) to shoulder the responsibility of organising this herself," she stated. "We wanted to indicate that we would never allow this to happen, not here, not anywhere. Every time anything like this were to occur, we would be there to dislodge the guilty parties."
However, the demonstration very nearly didn't take place. "Cécile Jodogne, the Mayor of Schaerbeek, invited us to a meeting on Wednesday at 6 PM, which was the same time as our rally," the activist explained. "Her plan was to put an end to our protest.”
In the end, over 450 people showed up and heard Haddioui give a minute-by-minute retelling of the initial assault. Toumazoff praised her speech, stating that "Even if just one person stumbles on the demonstration, they will be able to hear what it is like to be put through such an ordeal and then subjected to cyberbullying on the back of it."
When asked if this would lead to other women speaking out against high-profile perpetrators, Toumazoff seemed unsure: "We already know that Haddioui isn't Michel De Herde's only victim, and we also know that he isn't the only Belgian politician whose name has been bandied about, but we can't currently speak in the place of any potential victims."
In any case, she insisted that the shame associated with these offences must shift towards the perpertrator: "First and foremost, I would like for the guy to be so ashamed that he stops coming to the council and for Haddioui to be able to return to her duties as soon as possible," she explained, "then the rest of municipal council should no longer want to sit at the same table as Michel De Herde."
However, she adds that doing so would need a significant degree of soul-searching on the part of politicians, something she does not feel is possible: "There are those who must not only look in the mirror and ask themselves what they have done, but there are also others who must cope with what they have silenced, and people in power just have no interest in doing so."
The Brussels Times reached out to Michel De Herde but he declined to comment.