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Nuns' historic protest challenges India's patriarchy

Kerala protest calling for the arrest of a bishop accused of raping a nun threatens to shake nation's power structure

T.K. Devasia, Kochi

T.K. Devasia, Kochi

Published: September 19, 2018 09:44 AM GMT

Updated: September 19, 2018 10:15 AM GMT

Nuns' historic protest challenges India's patriarchy

Nuns and Muslim supporters demand the arrest of Bishop Franco Mulakkal in a protest outside the High Court in Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Sept. 13. Bishop Mulakkal, who is accused of raping a nun, has denied the accusations.
(Photo by AFP)

The street protest in Kerala by Catholic nuns demanding justice for a nun allegedly raped by a bishop has become a watershed in Indian society to fight for gender equality in a challenge to India's deep-rooted patriarchal values.

"This is a historical turning point. It should be seen as the start of Indian women's open challenge to male domination and the trampling of women with impunity," said Indulekha Joseph, a legal adviser and supporter of the nuns.

In the history of the church, which claims the apostolic legacy of St. Thomas in the southern state of Kerala, at no point had Catholic nuns taken to the streets seeking justice, especially alleging the rape of a nun by a bishop, she said.

The patriarchal social ethos forced women to suppress rape. "But here the companions of the victim stood with their sister. The families of the nuns stood with them. And, when church officials failed to act, they mustered the courage to go the police … and when police delayed the arrest of the bishop, they started a public protest," said Joseph.

The protest by four Missionaries of Jesus nuns began on Sept. 8 and is continuing daily.

"It will lead to a rethinking of women's role and dignity in the church and society," said Sister Teena Jose of the Congregation of Mother Carmel.

She noted that the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in December 2009 released a gender policy saying that "all types of discrimination against women are contrary to God's intent and purpose."

"If the church had implemented this policy, the nuns would not have taken to the streets to seek justice for one of our sisters who was sexually abused by a member of the clergy," said the nun.

Hundreds like Sister Jose travel daily to the protest venue in Kochi, business capital of Kerala, lending support to the four nuns in a case involving Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar, who allegedly raped their former superior 13 times over a period of two years. The nuns are calling for the bishop's arrest and conviction.

Several speakers noted that it was not the first such claim against a cleric, but in the long history of the church in India no cleric had been punished publicly for sexual violation of a nun.

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The nuns were forced to take to the streets because of the silence and inaction of church authorities to whom the allegation was reported a year ago, Joseph said. "If they had not come out, this too might be hushed up and several more will suffer in silence."

Sister Jose said it would be a milestone in the history of the Catholic Church if the protest achieved its goal. "I am sure this will embolden thousands of nuns to come out against the exploitation they silently suffer within four walls of the convent," she said.

In a society like India, women are not supposed to complain against men of their family. Priests and bishops are considered close family members and representatives of God, Joseph said.

Mary Sebastian quit a nunnery last year following physical and mental harassment from her superiors. She said her family does not want her to return home. "In fact, they don't want me to quit the church. It is all because of the stigma that is associated with it. Society will only target my family for my actions," she said.

Joseph C. Mathew, a civil rights activist, said the nuns' protest may serve as a window to nuns who silently suffer exploitation and harassment. "Church authorities must realize this and make the required amends. This will save the church from imminent collapse," he added.

Women's activist P. Geetha said the courage shown by the nuns to come out of their cloister will embolden women come out against the patriarchal system. "The church has played a big role in the renaissance movement. The struggle by the nuns has sown the seeds for another renaissance movement," she said.

Geetha even believes that the ripples of the protest may also be felt across the global church as a debate is raging about the empowerment of women. "I feel this will force the Vatican to change their stance on religious women, who are treated now as second-class citizens," she added.

Advocate T.B. Mini, another women's activist, said the nuns' protest had given new life to Kerala society. "The protest is a war against the patriarchal system that has kept women under suppression not only within the church but also in society as a whole. I am sure Kerala women will carry forward this movement to its logical conclusion," she said.

Mini said the arrest of the bishop is now secondary. The protest has shaken the iron walls of the church as well as society, she said, adding that it is a strong warning that nobody will be able to ignore.

Rights activist C.R. Neelakandan said the nuns' fight was not against the church but against the government that had yielded to the power of the church.

"The protest by the nuns is historic. It has shaken the power structures that subjugate women. I am sure the echoes of the protest will reverberate throughout India," he said.

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