Inspiring Thursday: Franca Viola

1965, Sicily, Italy: a young woman named Franca Viola, abducted and raped for a week, had the courage to publicly refuse to marry her rapist, thus becoming the first Italian woman to defy a long-standing legal and cultural tradition that was harmful to women – the matrimonio riparatore (literally rehabilitating marriage, a sort of “marry-your-rapist” law) – that would have her marry her abuser to “restore” her honor. Instead, she and her family pressed charges against the rapist, Filippo Melodia, and won. Franca Viola thus became a symbol of cultural progress and emancipation of women in post-war Italy.

Franca was born in 1948 in the rural town of Alcamo, Sicily. In 1963, when she was just 15, she became engaged to Filippo Melodia, nephew of a local mafia member and eight years older than her. However, when Melodia was arrested for theft, Viola broke off the engagement with her family’s approval. Melodia then left for Germany and came back to Alcamo in 1965, by that time finding Viola engaged to another man, Giuseppe Ruisi, a childhood friend of hers. Melodia tried to become part of Viola’s life again by stalking her and threatening both her father and boyfriend, but she refused to take him back.

Her persistence in rejecting him led Melodia, together with more than a dozen companions, to plan Viola’s abduction and rape, with the assumption that the law was behind him. As a matter of fact, at the time Article 544 of the Italian criminal code recognized a kind of marriage, the matrimonio riparatore, that would forgive the abuser for his crime and restore to the “damaged” victim her honor and that of her family. The plan was executed on December 26th 1965, when Melodia stormed into the Viola family farmhouse early in the morning, badly beating Franca’s mother, and dragging the young woman away. She was held captive for eight days and repeatedly raped by Melodia, who told her she would have to marry him so she would not become a “dishonored” woman. On January 2nd 1966, after one week, Franca Viola was released, and the kidnappers arrested.

As expected, Filippo Melodia offered Franca a rehabilitating marriage. However, Franca told her father she had no intention of marrying her rapist, to which her father unexpectedly replied he would do everything possible to help her. Knowing she had her family’s support, Franca publicly refused Melodia’s proposal, thus acting against a long-standing common practice in the Sicilian society of the time. Franca Viola became the first Italian woman to publicly reject a rehabilitating marriage. Not only that, but she went so far as to take her abductor to court, accusing him of kidnapping, carnal violence, and intimidation. It was not an easy thing to do: she and her family were threatened, ostracized and persecuted by most of the people of Alcamo, to the point of having their vineyard and barn burned to the ground.

These events and the following trial had a wide resonance in the Italian media, and the Parliament itself was directly involved, as it became obvious that part of the existing code clashed with the public opinion. Melodia’s lawyers tried to portray Viola as a willing participant of the so-called fuitina (elopement, a runaway to get married in secret) rather than a victim of kidnapping, but in May 1967, Melodia was finally found guilty. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison; five of his friends were acquitted, the others received relatively mild sentences. Melodia got out of prison in 1976, only to be banished from Sicily for his ties with Mafia. He was later killed in April 1978 in Modena, in a mafia-style execution.

At this point, traditional customs wanted Franca to be further victimized by the society and treated as an unmarriageable outcast for having refused to marry her abductor, somehow to be blamed for her unfortunate circumstances and for the decision of not marrying the man she had lost her virginity to. Luckily this was not the case, as Franca had the happy ending she deserved. In December 1968, she married Giuseppe Ruisi, the man she loved and who had stayed by her side during the whole ordeal. In recognition of her heroic challenging of the system, the Italian President sent 40 Lire (around $300 today) as a wedding present. The country’s Transport Minister gave the newlyweds a month of free railway rides. Pope Paul VI also publicly expressed his appreciation of Franca Viola’s courage and his solidarity with the couple, inviting them in a private audience with him. Franca and Giuseppe had two sons, and today still live in Alcamo.

Article 544, allowing a rapist to marry his victim to extinguish his crime, was not repealed until 1981. In Italy, sexual violence became a crime against the person (instead against “public morality”) only in 1996. In 2014, Franca Viola was awarded the title of Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica by President Giorgio Napolitano in a public ceremony to mark International Women’s Day.

By Valentina Canepa, WAVE Intern