Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Scandal That Changed Italian Law

Franca Viola as a young woman
Franca Viola and Giuseppe Riusi, a young Sicilian couple, plighted their troth in 1961, when she was only fourteen and he not much older. They lived in the village of Alcamo, children of agricultural workers. Little money; less education.

At that time and place, among such families, La Fuitina was a common mode of getting married. This involved having the young couple disappear for a few days then return to the village hand in hand, signaling to the world that they had been intimate.

This action made her a fallen woman who could be ostracized and him a rapist who faced prison. But all could be made right through a strange part of the Italian legal code at the time called matrimonio reparatore (rehabilitating wedding). A woman could restore her own honor and that of her family by marrying the man with whom she’d had sexual relations, and the man could be absolved of rape charges. Many poor families, unable to afford dowries and wedding feasts, encouraged their children to take this route.

Who knows, Franca and Giuseppe might have done La Fuitina at some point. It was part of their cultural heritage, after all. But alas, they weren’t given the chance.

Franca blossomed into a beautiful young woman. By the age of seventeen, she was being pursued by Filippo Melodia, 21, a young man with Mafia connections who came from a rich and powerful family. Franca wanted nothing to do with him and rebuffed him at every turn, honoring her pledge to Giuseppe.

Determined to have her, Filippo assembled twelve of his friends and kidnapped Franca, along with her eight-year-old brother, Mariano, on the day after Christmas 1965. The kidnappers released Mariano after a short time and sent him back home. Filippo restrained Franca and repeatedly raped her for eight days.

Meanwhile, Franca’s father, Bernando, negotiated with the kidnappers for her return, ostensibly making arrangements for a matrimonio reparatore between Franca and Filippo. In truth, he was cooperating with the police to set up a sting operation which ultimately led to her release and the kidnappers’ arrest.

Franca Viola today
The Italian penal code at that time defined sexual violence as a crime against morality, not against the victim. In fact, a raped woman was seen as guilty of immoral behavior for having sex outside marriage, cursed for life as a slut. Both she and her family would have been shunned by the community. Her only recourse was to marry the rapist in a matrimonio ripartore. Men had used this scheme before to secure marriage with a reluctant conquest.

Filippo offered Franca this resolution, but she refused. Her father supported her decision, and together they challenged the law. This courageous act by a semi-literate Sicilian farm worker and his daughter blazed a trail that transformed the Italian penal code.

The trial of Filippo and his accomplices splashed across Italian newspapers daily. Death threats hounded the Viola family, and arson consumed their vineyards and home. Filippo’s lawyers portrayed Franca as an immoral young woman who had welcomed the interlude. But Franca’s lawyer, Ludovico Corrao, argued that the matrimonio riparatore was a barbaric custom that had to be eradicated.

The judges heard Corrao. Filippo was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison. His accomplices received lesser, various sentences. Filippo served ten years, leaving prison in 1976 only to be killed two years later during a Mafia power struggle in Alcamo.

Franca became a folk hero to the budding feminist movement in Italy. Her actions led the Parliament to eventually repeal the matrimonio riparatore legislation in 1981. No rapist in Italy can now be exonerated in this fashion, and a rape victim is a victim. Period.

Of the episode, Franca said at the time, “I didn’t want to marry a man I didn’t love. I would rather spend my entire life alone than do that.”

The Honeymoon
But she hasn’t spent her life alone. Despite the notoriety of her rape and the ensuing publicity, childhood sweethearts Franca Viola and Giuseppe Riusi married in 1968, seven years after their engagement. The President of the Republic sent a gift to the bridal couple as a show of solidarity, and on their honeymoon in Rome, they had a private audience with Pope Paul VI.

They moved away from Alcamo for the first three years of their marriage for fear of retaliation. They returned in 1971 and live there still among their children and grandchildren.

Today Franca says, “It was not a courageous gesture. I only did what I felt I had to do, as any other girl would do today. I listened to my heart.”


  1. This story gives me chills, it is so powerful. Franca was very brave no matter what she says. They had to move away from their home, family and friends for a while, so I can imagine how precarious their lives must have been during the trial. And she made things much easier for women who came after her.

  2. It gave me chills too, but not just her personal story (wow), but because it took the Italian government till 1981 to change that barbaric law? I always think of Italy and Europe in general as progressive on many things that this just shocked me. Thanks for making us more aware, Patricia.

  3. Heidi, when you think of her background, you really see how courageous she was. Her lawyer was in the Italian parliament, but he was also from her small town. He was a strong advocate.

  4. Supriya, the barbaric law was based on Old Testament writings that spelled out punishment for people who had sex outside marriage. In the worst case scenario, both could be stoned. However misguided, the law was designed to "protect" women because a raped woman was damaged goods who could never hope to have a husband.

    This is truly a love story. The culture demanded that Giuseppe shun her after the rape, but he married her. And she can say, fifty years later, "I followed my heart."

  5. What a courageous woman, to speak out and face everyone. What a victory for victims that the law was changed.

    Even here, it wasn't so long ago that a rape victim was ostracized by many. The law favored the rapist, and lawyers frequently destroyed the victim's reputation and claimed she "asked for it." It's still a very difficult crime, with abuses on both sides.

  6. Ellis, thank you for your comment. Franca discounts what she did, but Italian women know. Her name is always listed as the first woman to challenge the rehabilitating wedding.

  7. Women, unfairly, tend to find themselves at a disadvantage especially in matters concerning sexual offences and I am happy that Franca Viola stood up for herself and all other female Italians, who knows that law may still have been in existence if she hadn't! I also noted that her father,her fiancé and her lawyer, all males, stood at her side at what must have been a very difficult time. Wherever they are I thank them. Supriya, it may be surprising but it was only in 1991 that marital rape became a crime in the United Kingdom, even the developed countries have hang ups when it comes to sexual offences.

  8. Geets, thanks for your comment. It is a complex issue. You're right, she did have male support. I especially admire Giuseppe who by tradition would not have married her after the rape.

  9. Really interesting story, Patricia. And sad that these sort of laws/situations are still common in many areas of the world.

  10. What a sad and interesting story with a positive ending. I only wish the whole world could value women and get rid of the customs and laws that make them second class citizens or even worse.