Letters of Solidarity
A lot seemed to have happened in the last week. We are officially in the third wave, as a result of which I am back home, attending online classes, sulking and negotiating my way through it. The Delhi High Court is hearing a case on marital rape, which seems like a step in the right direction; Borris Johnson might probably not be the prime minister of the UK by the time I write my next blog, India will be soon seeing a massive election season in the summer, and Emily In Paris has been renewed for two more seasons (ugh, the guts)
What a week, right? While all of these were taking their due course on International media, something was happening in the Kottayam district of Kerala.
On January 14, the Additional District and Sessions Court Kottayam acquitted Bishop Franco Mulakkal who was accused of raping a nun from the Missionaries of Jesus convent in Kuravilangad. The judgement sent shock waves throughout as it was a very airtight case. Her lawyers, the cops, the nuns who stood by her and everyone who had followed the case was positive that Franco would be convicted. The evidence was all there, the reasons were there, it all made sense. But still, he was acquitted. It’s been six days since I read the judgement copy, and I still cannot negotiate with it. As I read through the 289-page verdict, I could see how we collectively are responsible for letting people who hold authority get away with something, especially sexual abuse. With every page that I scrolled, I saw the reflection of a system that takes immense care to uphold institutions in their status quo, even if it meant closing and locking the chambers of the same institutions where crimes happen lavishly.
While my anger, disappointment and outrage took their course on social media, I also stumbled upon something that held me in a state of paralysis. I stood there observing. Observing at the change this judgement had heralded. I stood there in admiration of a moment that moved me beyond my imagination and filled me with a strange energy that I couldn’t put my finger on and locate, but I knew it was there. Working in its various ways, and bringing in a sense of solidarity.
I saw hundreds, if not thousands of women coming forward and posting their handwritten letters addressed to sister x, the unnamed survivor nun, and the five other nuns who stood by her in the public eye. They fought a battle that I would have never fathomed would ripple so far and beyond. These letters were written to acknowledge the erosion of truth. They not only applauded the nuns for their courage to go against the grain and resist an institution that they’ve obeyed all their lives but the letters also expressed the deep frustration and anger at a system that has always had its handheld forward in letting go of a powerful man, unaccounted for his crimes. When a patriarchal structure stands on the pillars of systematic dehumanisation and erasure of truth, it takes time, but it eventually crumbles. These letters believed the nuns, they believed their truth and gave a hand in aid to uphold the sceptre of this truth. These letters did what the 289-page verdict, perhaps failed to do.
The letters understood the complexity of the rape culture that thrives in India, which deepens prominently when institutional structures fail to check the blatant assault that flourishes in their courtyards, something that the 289-page verdict failed to acknowledge. Franco was not acquitted because there wasn’t enough evidence to prove his crime, but he was acquitted because the judgement indulged much aggressively in victim-shaming. When I read the judgement, I could jot down a checklist that works every time a woman comes out to report sexual abuse. It primarily starts with questioning if the crime is being exaggerated, then it goes on to question if the event was even a crime, and lastly questioning if the event even occurred.
One of the points raised by the judge was the delay in filing a complaint with the cops. In reality, the delay was because the nuns first approached various levels within the catholic structure seeking help. It is also really important that we look at the conditions the nun lived in. She became a nun when she was fifteen. Ever since then, she was governed totally by the structures of the church. It is not very easy for her to overcome the notions of chastity and devoutness toward the institution, and report the crime. The court also pointed at the “inconsistency” the survivor showed in her testimony. It said that she failed to mention vaginal penetration at the beginning. The court noted that if she was abused on the first floor with a window that allowed noise to travel, why hadn’t anyone heard her? The court heavily spoke about a complaint filed by the nun’s cousin accusing her of having an affair with the cousin’s husband. The cousin eventually testified that she made a false accusation due to a personal rift between the two, but the court decided not to believe this. It said the cousin who is a teacher cannot lie about such things. So a nun can? I don’t understand the logic behind this reason. I don’t understand much of the judgement. The court even says that the nun could have been instigated to file a false complaint by rivals of the former bishop. So feasible, right? To file a case against the bishop (who is much more powerful in the institutional structure, in money and everything), put your life and security at risk?
“When it is not feasible to separate truth from falsehood when grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up, the only available course is to discard the evidence in toto”. That’s how the court ended its verdict. Discard the evidence that was well defined to prove sexual abuse that has been systematically covered up. The court heavily came down in discrediting the survivor and her story. It created a thin membrane around Franco, through which his crimes and behaviour were visible but he wasn’t held accountable because the verdict is perfectly legal. It is this mechanism that went on to further silence the nun and put the people who stood by her at further risk. If a victim doesn’t shout when she is being sexually abused, was she even raped? Is that a parameter that we can judge? How often has a man been successful at silencing a woman (both literally and metaphorically)?
The letters that poured in solidarity for the nuns sparked a deep sombreness within all of us, it created a space where truth mattered. The nuns who stood by sister x are the ones that I see a beacon of hope in. Their relentless effort in upholding their truth and continuing their fight for justice is so powerful that it pulls them back from the margins, places them at the centre and forces the crowd to listen to them because they matter, and their voice does. And they are making sure of it. The verdict created a vacuum, where the truth could’ve existed, where this awkward but angering silence could’ve seen the light of justice, but it failed to do so. In times as such, movements like this nudge us to think, to understand and to speak up.
You can send in your letters of solidarity to the nuns at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can use the hashtags #withthenuns #avalkoppam to be a part of this movement.
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