I just want to tell you a story. Will you listen?
You probably don’t know this woman: her name is Franca Viola. She was born in Alcamo, Sicily, in 1947, during a time where, see, things for women were deeply different.
This is her when she was 17.
She was 17 when, on the 26th of December, 1965, she was kidnapped by her former boyfriend, Filippo Melodia, the son of a local mobster, and a few of his friends: she had broken the engagement with him a couple of years prior, when she was 15 and he was 23, and he couldn’t accept it. He kept her segregated in a farmhouse for 8 days and raped her, before she was found and freed by the police.
At that time, the Italian law stood with her kidnapper and rapist, as it stated that if the rapist married his victim, then the crime was virtually erased, and, had the guilty part already been prosecuted and convicted, the trial and the sentence would cease. This kind of marriage was called “rehabilitating marriage,” as it was believed that the victim, and her family, had to fix the dishonour caused by the rape.
Incredible, isn’t it? Not really. In an area where families still used to hang the sheet dirty with blood to their balcony after the first wedding night to prove the virginity of the woman to the entire town, the law and the public opinion still expected women to marry their abusers to mantain their honour.
Franca refused to marry Melodia. Knowing that the entire town – and, later, the whole country – could turn its back at her, knowing that she was going to be mocked, frowned upon, and insulted, she denounced him. Her family, who, contrarily to many other families, stood with her and supported her choice, needed to be guarded at all times by a handful of policemen, having been threatened by Melodia and his family. Franca was assisted by a brilliant lawyer. The trial ended up being reported by Italy’s major newspapers, and Franca, the first woman – girl – to refuse rehabilitating marriage, quickly became an example of bravery for many, many other women.
In court, Melodia tried to turn the judge against her. He said she’d already hooked up with him when they were together. He tried to escape conviction.
He was convicted for kidnapping anyway, and justly. Eight years later, when he got out, he was shot dead by an unknown killer.
Despite earlier threats that she was dishonoured, and that she wasn’t going to find anyone willing to marry her, she married Giuseppe, a childhood friend, in 1968, who stated that he wasn’t afraid of any possible acts of revenge from Melodia. He allegedly said said, “I’d rather live ten years with you than a lifetime with another woman.” About her dad, who supported her every step, Franca recently said, “My father Bernardo came [to get me] unshaven, with a week’s old beard: I could not shave if you were not there, he said. What do you want to do, Franca? I will not marry him. All right, you put your hand, I will put one hundred. This sentence, he said. I just want you to be happy, nothing else. He took me home and he did the great effort, not me. It was him who put up with those who no longer greeted him, his friends gone. The shame, the dishonour. His head up high. He wanted only what was good for me.”
When he heard about her wedding, even Pope Paul VI asked to meet her to congratulate her.
Her trial was the final push to erase the law about rehabilitating marriage and honour killings, which also allowed “mitigating circumstances” if the killer had acted upon jealousy or to restore his honour (for instance, if a husband walked in on his wife cheating on him, and killed both her and her lover). But that didn’t happen until 1981.
Rape was finally considered a “crime against the person,” instead of a crime “against the morals”, only in 1996.
She still lives in Alcamo; she says that, sometimes, she still sees her kidnappers, and whilst she greets them, they lower her gaze in shame. Franca has never, not once, lowered her gaze, and that’s why she changed history.
This is just a tiny post to remember how small acts of courage can change history and change the shape of a nation – and as a woman, an Italian, a Sicilian woman, I want to thank Franca for saying ‘no’ and – perhaps by chance – changing the history of Italy.
Reblogging again for International Women’s Day, in celebration of the women who changed history.
This is Franca Viola today, an elegant and gentle woman, now grandmother of a little girl.
In 2014, on this day, she was honoured as Grande Ufficiale al merito della Repubblica italiana – Great official for merit of Italy – for her role in fighting the misoginyst mentality of those times, and contributed to re-think the approach towards rape and the role of women in Italian society.