With Bishop Franco Mulakkal acquitted of all charges of rape in a stunning judgment on January 14, there is anger and amazement among women across the country. It is a significant case, with Mulakkal being the first bishop in India’s Catholic history to be arrested after a nun in Kerala accused him of sexually assaulting her on multiple occasions over a two-year period.
The accusations against Mulakkal went public in 2018 and he was arrested, and made bail, the same year. Braving the stringent conventions of the Catholic church, several nuns came out to stand in solidarity with the survivor, even if it meant risking their position. A trial in the rape case began in 2019 and a Kottayam court delivered its conclusion this month. Mulakkal walks free.
In support of the nuns in Kerala, both the survivor and protestors, women across India are writing letters. These handwritten notes, being posted on social media, accompany the hashtags #withthenuns and #avalkoppam (which in Malayalam means ‘with her’). These letters are pulsing with the will to fight for gender justice in the face of what appears to be a huge setback for the movement against violence.
‘Dear sister… you are not alone,’ these letters assert.
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Brief background on the case
57-year-old Mulakkal, a bishop at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar, was accused of rape by a senior nun from the order of Missionaries of Jesus in 2018. In a complaint to the police in Kottayam, the nun claimed Mulakkal sexually assaulted her 13 times between 2014 and 2016. Mulakkal denied the allegations.
Surprise protests had broken out in Kerala at the time with nuns demanding Mulakkal’s arrest. As per reports, the nuns who partook in these protests alleged resistance from the church. Sister Lucy, a nun from the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, had protested against Mulakkal and was dismissed from the church soon after.
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Much like the Tarun Tejpal acquittal, the judgment clearing Mulakkal of rape charges is being noted for the worrying tone it takes in appearing to put the survivor nun on trial.
The court order acquitting Tejpal, journalist and Tehelka founder accused of rape, made observations questioning the character of the survivor, going so far as to say that the woman did not exhibit “normative behaviours” that a sexual assault survivor would show.
Who decides who an ‘ideal’ rape survivor is? Can this experience be open to subjective judgment?
In similar pronouncements, Mulakkal’s acquittal order reportedly notes how the survivor travelled distances with him in his car, smiled for photographs with him and exchanged emails with him. “There is no consistency in the statement of the victim,” the order given by Additional Sessions Court judge Gopakumar G states.
“This is a case in which the grain and chaff are inextricably mixed up… There are exaggerations and embellishments in the version of the victim. She has also made every attempt to hide certain facts. It is also evident that the victim was swayed under the influence of others…” the order painfully reads.
The sisterhood standing in support of all the nuns who spoke out has a key question to ask: Who decides what ‘ideal’ behaviour for a survivor of sexual assault constitutes? With our courts relying on this line of argument to acquit rape accused, will survivors ever be encouraged to approach the system in pursuit of justice?
Will rape survivors be believed only when they express tears or fear or distance from their perpetrator?
Why is the onus on women to prove conduct in a case that is founded on allegations of a crime as grievous as rape? What is this, if not proof of our misogynistic, gender violent society tipped in favour of male privilege?
India’s #MeToo movement that accelerated in 2018 has pushed the pedal on bringing more pained, angry, fearful voices out in the public domain than was possible before. Women, holding hands with their sisterhoods standing solid beside them in shared experiences of gender injustice, are finding strength in numbers.
The hope that all is not lost is what is contained in the handwritten letters to Kerala nuns being passed around on the internet. These are personalised statements of women saying, ‘Believe her. Enough is enough.’ They are written oaths of keeping the movement for women’s rights and dignity alive.
Views expressed are the author’s own.