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Cultura Società e Attualità

Meet Franca Viola, the anti-mafia feminist who changed Italy forever

Sicily, 1960.

Franca has got permission from her parents, now Filippo can be her boyfriend. She’s 15. Italian values of these years, especially in Sicily, are strongly focused on family and honour. A girl must choose her interactions with boys extremely carefully, so as to not “far parlare la gente”, as they say. That’s an expression you’d hear very frequently in Italy. It literally means “make people talk” and it refers to gossip, but the concept is far more important than some annoying gossip: it is a matter of honour. If people “talk”, you can’t ignore it. You have to be honourable in the eyes of your neighbours, otherwise no people of good family will spend their time with you.

Being honourable is also very different between the sexes. For girls, it’s all centred on sexuality: keep yourself a virgin until marriage, don’t kiss, touch or show any closeness to a boy unless it’s your official boyfriend. Don’t have too many boyfriends. Keep yourself “illibata”: untouched. If a boy of good family has “buone intenzioni” with you, which means he has in mind to start an official engagement, the first thing he might ask is if you are illibata.

In the movie “Made in Italy” of 1965, this bit of italian culture is satirised with a man who asks for thorough information about a girl. He is given a long list that looks like an intel from some secret service, which reveals all sorts of misbehaviour: the girl turns out to be a psychopath who even attempted to kill the siblings. But she has never had a boyfriend. “So is she untouched??” cries of happiness the man. His friend replies “yes, but…”. It doesn’t matter: she’s illibata, she’s good to marry. That’s all that matters.

Franca, like all the girls in the small Sicilian village of Alcamo, knows very well what sexism is.

“I am not property of anyone, no one can force me to love a person I don’t respect.” (F. Viola)

When her boyfriend is arrested for robbery and is found to be part of a mafia clan, their relationship is over. She doesn’t want to be associated with a mafia criminal. What happens next is really the story of many girls.

At first, the ex-boyfriend Filippo starts to threaten her to get her back. He also threatens the father, who supports Franca’s choice. But then he gets to another level: menaces the father with a gun, sets their land and properties on fire, destroys everything they have. He’s not only a toxic and aggressive ex-boyfriend: he’s a mobster. His threats are countless.

By the age of 19, Franca still fiercely refuses him. Nothing has changed her mind and nothing will. But Filippo has some sexist laws from his side, one in particular: the “matrimonio riparatore” – “repairing marriage”. Whoever rapes a girl and violates her honour, can “repair” to the crime by… marrying her. Any criminal prosecution will end. Here’s the double violence of patriarchal society: the rapist gets away with it and the woman has to marry someone who violated her. If she doesn’t, she’ll be dishonoured.

“Honour is lost by those who do certain things, not by those who suffer them.” (F. Viola)

Filippo’s revenge take a terrible turn. He gathers a dozen friends and breaks into her home, destroying everything. He’s there to kidnap Franca, rape her and enforce the repairing marriage. Her mother can’t do much to resist the brute force of so many people, she’s beaten and Franca is taken away senseless.

She’ll be raped, beaten, left with no food and kept abducted for the following days. He won’t release her until she agrees to the marriage. Despite being a victim, Franca is dishonored for life by the rape – or is she? After this moral and physical humiliation, Filippo thinks he broke her will. He didn’t: Franca is firm on refusing. In fact, she opposes him so firmly that he’ll rape her only after several days of starvation. She’ll only be able to whisper “vastasu” – “you bastard”.

Franca doesn’t know, yet, what huge impact her actions will have. Her courage will soon travel from the little Alcamo to the whole Italy, shaking it to the core.

Her family tells Filippo they accept the matrimonio riparatore and they’ll persuade Franca. It’s all planned: the father went immediately to the police, but they still can’t find Franca. They suggest pretending to accept the deal and wait for him to show up. It works. Franca is brought to a joint meeting between hers and Filippo’s family, the father pretends to discuss the deal – actually, he just asks: “do you want to marry him?”. She refuses once again. “You give me a hand and I’ll give you a hundred” it’s his reply.

They pretend to accept. While Franca is home and guarded by the police, Filippo is found and arrested at dawn the next day. He’s sure he’ll marry Franca and get away with his crimes – but will he?

A heated debate starts in Italy. Is Franca right to refuse him? Is the matrimonio riparatore legit and fair for women? Do Italians still believe in such values?

Newspapers start telling the story of this Sicilian girl who’s been kidnapped, beaten, raped and humiliated in many ways. The previous years of threats and violence. How this family never backed down against a mafia criminal and how they still don’t: “after this trial you’ll end up alone, you should be scared…” are common threats to the father.

An overwhelming majority sides with Franca Viola: a marriage is founded on love, it can’t be founded on rape, violence and hate. Franca is the victim, regardless of any “honour”, and no rapist should get away with a marriage proposal in the name of some old system of values.

In 1966, a year later, the rapist ex-boyfriend is convicted by a Sicilian court. It’s the beginning of a new epoch. In vain he tried to discredit Franca, justify the rape and try any strategy of victim blaming – including blatant lies, such as “we’ve been having sex from before” or “she agreed to run away with me”. It’s just undeniable that Franca opposed him.

Franca is not dishonoured at all – she’s seen as an example for other women. “My daughter will never marry the man that kidnapped and raped her”, says the father. Newspapers headlines start saying “We hope for many more Francas”. The family will face criticism too, but they’ll never back down. Change was inevitable.

Coincidentally, in 1970 Italians decide through a referendum to introduce the right to divorce. The Vatican and the Christian Democrats’ government oppose it in vain.

In 1981 the sexist and obsolete law of matrimonio riparatore, no longer used, is formally abolished.

In 2014, within the celebration of Women’s Day, Franca Viola receives a mention of honour from the President of the Republic “for her brave refusal of the matrimonio riparatore, which was a fundamental step in women’s emancipation in our Country”.

Despite fears for honour in the small village, Franca married a man of her choice in 1968, receiving a wedding present from no less than the President of the Republic, on behalf of all the Italian people, and an invitation from the Pope. She’s still married to this day and she lives a simple and reserved life, having declared many times that she did nothing special.

This was the story of the 15-year-old girl that had much more honour and courage than a mobster.

Omar Alfieri

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