In a state touted for its “development model” and its “matrilineal system,” the Anupama case, the Dileep case and the Franco case should force us to think beyond the postcard version of women’s empowerment.

Bishop FrancoPTI
Voices OPINION Monday, January 17, 2022 - 10:14

The recent verdict by the Additional Sessions Court in Kerala acquitting Bishop Franco Mulakkal of sexually assaulting a nun has cast a shadow on efforts to foreground gender justice in Kerala. This comes in the wake of two crucial incidents that involve women’s rights in the state. First, Anupama’s fight to be reunited with her son, who was given up for adoption by her father Jayachandran, a CPI(M) leader, without her knowledge and allegedly with the collusion of the state’s adoption bodies. And second, the government’s decision not to release the Justice Hema Commission report that inquired into the issues faced by women in the Malayalam film industry. The Hema Commission was constituted in 2017 after an actor was abducted and sexually assaulted in a car in Kochi. Malayalam actor Dileep is alleged to be the mastermind of the crime  

In both these instances, demands were made of the Kerala government for transparency, citing that the message it sends to the public about the state’s stance on gender issues makes a mockery of the values that brought the current government to power. If judicial intervention alongside support from certain sections of civil society solidified Anupama’s fight against the system, in the case of the survivor nun who filed the complaint against Bishop Franco, following the verdict, her humiliation was doubled by the way the 289-page judgment disbelieves her.

While there are higher courts that the survivor can approach to appeal the judgment, the framing of sexual violence and the language used to refer to the acts demand a closer look. That’s the bare minimum that we owe to the survivor for her willingness to come forward despite hostile treatment, including demotion and transfer.

Read: Franco judgment uses alleged 'illicit relationship' to disbelieve survivor’s accusations

Why use such explicit language and detailing in the testimony? The details that one would find in an FIR do not need to be replicated in the same way in a judgment that summarises the arguments of both parties and delivers the final verdict. Considering the closed-court proceedings followed in this case, the explicit narrativising of the abuse is intrusive, as it sabotages what the closed-room format was meant to protect – unnecessary, and even vulgar, public scrutiny of the survivor.

How would this judgment translate to another survivor, who might want to file an FIR, especially considering that this judgment now circulates as a public document? And what does it tell us about the underlying (problematic) understanding of what constitutes sexual violence?

Survivors of sexual violence are put under a lot of pressure as they emotionally equip themselves to come forward and register a formal complaint. This is especially because there is increased scrutiny of the survivor, her “morality” and intentions when sexual violence is involved. Hence, the legal environment must be made conducive enough for survivors to file complaints in the first place. Ultimately, the best course of action – whether legal redressal or some other form of support – is always the survivor’s prerogative.

What the judgment characterises as “hazy and at times obscure complaints” or seemingly “inconsistent and mutually contradictory” statements are very much part traumatic recollection. Moreover, the expectation of “clarity” emerges from the undue expectation that an ideal victim would respond to a situation in a particular way. The defense was quick to say that the victim had “no consistent version” of events to recount to the court, shedding doubt over the veracity of her complaint.

One of the arguments made by the defense was that she didn’t disclose the sexual abuse to her fellow nuns in the church. In a Facebook post dated January 15, 2022, Dhanya Rajendran makes an important point about why this judgment makes one queasy about revealing sexual violence. It places the onus on the survivor to gather the evidence as if women should “keep a ledger if they are sexually assaulted, harassed, abused or raped,” as Rajendran puts it. To add to the irony, at one point the judgment states that the revelation of violence that the survivor made to the witnesses (companion sisters) were “about the sexual abuses made by the accused and not about rape,” as if this taxonomic nitpicking is evidence of inconsistency on the survivor’s part.

What makes the Franco case distinct is how the survivor nun came out to give her statement, as well as the public stance taken by a group of nuns who offered her solidarity in her fight to expose the sexual abuse. Social movements and women’s groups have a lot to learn from this moment. Moreover, the acquittal doesn’t mark an end to the fight for justice for the survivor. It, in fact, forces us to reconsider our strategies to think about lateral coalitions. If lateral thinking allows for linking and learning from creative ideas that don’t immediately seem to go together, perhaps the fight for gender justice must look for “outside-the-box” solutions and finding strength in each other’s struggles and affect long term, structural change. Gender justice in Kerala must think across different issues to find common points of conversation within a skewed moral system that fixes women as either ideal mothers/daughters or ideal victims. If nothing else, the survivor in this case refuses to be cast in that mould. In a state touted for its “development model” and its “matrilineal system,” the Anupama case, the Dileep case and the Franco case should give us pause, and force us to think beyond the postcard version of women’s empowerment that such narratives can posit.

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

Darshana Sreedhar Mini is an assistant professor at the Department of Communication Arts, UW-Madison, USA.

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