Feminist rhetoric and family values: Forced marriages in Sicily after Franca Viola

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 15.27.24I’ve written before about the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who in 1966 made huge steps towards ending the practice of kidnap and forced marriage in southern Italy. Kidnapped by her ex-fiancé Filippo Melodia in December 1965, she was held by him for a week before an extensive police search tracked them down. Melodia made one last desperate attempt to flee onto the rooftops of the adjoining houses with Viola before he was taken into custody.

As dramatic as all of this sounds, what really made the story stand out was what happened next. According to local custom, Franca Viola was dishonoured by her ordeal and could only repair her reputation through marriage. Under Italian law, the crime of rape could also be absolved if the woman married her attacker. It was thus still widely expected that the episode would be brought to a quiet close with a wedding. However Franca Viola made headline news across Italy for her decision to refuse the ‘reparatory’ marriage, leading to the trial and prosecution of Melodia and his accomplices. As the first Sicilian woman to refuse such a marriage, her decision was an important step towards making this cruel practice both socially unacceptable and ultimately illegal. She was feted by the national press for courageously following her feelings and refusing a marriage that was not based on love.

Although Viola was and still is considered a feminist icon for her undoubtedly brave actions, what was clear at the time and is somewhat forgotten since, was the enormously important role her family played in supporting her decision. Her father Bernardo Viola was in fact one of her greatest advocates. A brief glance at the press coverage of the trial is enough to show that his voice was heard much more often than that of his daughter who, on closer inspection, was a much more elusive figure both in 1966 and afterwards. Never speaking directly to the press, Franca’s story and her apparent wishes were communicated through her father and elaborated by the press. A triumphant feminist story becomes, on closer inspection, a slightly more ambiguous one.

Another case that I’ve been looking at since complicates even further the simplistic feminist narrative usually attributed to the Viola case. In November 1970, a 15 year old girl named Carmelina Torrisi was abducted from the southern Sicilian town of Gela while out shoe shopping with her mother. Both she and her mother fought to prevent the abduction, but in vain. She returned home the next morning with her abductor Rocco Fauciana, a local man whose proposal of marriage Torrisi had rejected. Fauciana expected that, following local custom, Torrisi would now marry him in order to repair her honour. However, like Franca Viola just five years earlier, she had other ideas. What happened next was slightly unclear but some hours after her return home, Torrisi was taken to hospital after swallowing the sewing needle which she had been using to repair her torn skirt. Although she described it as an accident, speculation naturally turned to a suicide attempt and Torrisi spent the following weeks in hospital. During this time she managed to give several interviews to the press in which she strongly and clearly professed her wishes and feelings about what had happened to her. Reading the calm, clear words of this 15 year old girl as they appeared in several different newspaper interviews in November and December 1970, it struck me that Torrisi might have been the voice of Sicilian feminism that the media had sought in Viola several years earlier, only to be frustrated in their attempts to uncover the woman herself. Asked in the days following her admittance to hospital if she loved her attacker, Carmelina Torrisi replied clearly ‘absolutely not. I feel nothing for him’.[1] When journalists inquired as to what she intended to do next, the response was: ‘I want to leave here, to go to Turin or Milan, somewhere else, to breathe different air, see different people and hear nothing more about any of this’. The first hint that despite her own firm wishes, the outcome might not be as clear as it seemed, was when a journalist reported that her uncle had casually referred to Fauciana as her husband. ‘What did you say? I have no husband’, was Torrisi’s curt reply.[2]

However it gradually emerged over several weeks that the case was much more complex than it seemed at first glance. Torrisi’s mother, despite her show of resisting her daughter’s attacker, was revealed to have colluded with Fauciana and played a leading role in architecting her daughter’s kidnap. By December, Fauciana and his accomplice were joined in prison by his sister and Torrisi’s mother. 15 year old Carmelina was now under enormous pressure to make what must have seemed like an impossible decision: accept the marriage and free all involved or stand firm and condemn her own mother to a long prison sentence.

By January 1971 the case had disappeared entirely from the press, despite receiving national attention just several weeks earlier. Carmelina Torrisi had accepted the marriage with Fauciana in order to have the charges dropped against all involved. What had seemed like a new Viola case – and with an even stronger and more definite voice at its centre, despite her mere 15 years – ultimately ended in the traditional way, with a marriage rather than a court case. Torrisi’s wishes could not have been communicated more clearly or definitely and were recorded in the national media. However despite the feminist and individualist rhetoric surrounding the Viola case in 1966, it turns out that what really mattered in early 1970s Sicily was family.

[1] ‘La ragazza è tornata in ospedale’, Giornale di Sicilia, 21 November 1970.

[2] ‘Gela: La 15enne respinge il rapitore che va a trovarla in ospedale’, L’Ora, 18 November 1970.

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