|First Italian woman to publicly refuse to marry her rapist; instead, she and her family successfully appealed to the law to prosecute the rapist.|
|Family||Bernardo Viola (father)|
Vita Ferra (mother)
Franca Viola (born 9 January 1948) is an Italian woman who became famous in the 1960s in Italy for refusing a "rehabilitating marriage" (Italian: matrimonio riparatore) with her attacker after being kidnapped and raped. She is considered to be the first Italian woman who had been raped to publicly refuse to marry her rapist. Instead, she and her family successfully appealed to the law to prosecute the rapist. The trial had a wide resonance in Italy, as Viola's behavior clashed with the traditional social conventions in Southern Italy, whereby a woman would lose her honour if she did not marry the man to whom she lost her virginity. Franca Viola thus became a symbol of the cultural progress and the emancipation of women in post-war Italy.
Kidnapping and rape
Franca Viola was born in the rural town of Alcamo, Sicily, the oldest daughter of Bernardo Viola, a farmer, and his wife, Vita Ferra. In 1963, at the age of 15, she became engaged to Filippo Melodia, nephew of the mafia member Vincenzo Rimi, then aged 23. Melodia was subsequently arrested for theft, and Viola's father insisted she break off the engagement, which she did. Melodia then moved to Germany. By 1965 Viola was engaged to another man, and Melodia had returned to Alcamo and was trying unsuccessfully to re-enter Viola's life, stalking her and threatening both her father and boyfriend.
In the early hours of 26 December 1965, Melodia and a group of 12 armed companions broke into the Viola home and kidnapped Franca by dragging her into a car, in the process beating up Viola's mother and also taking Franca's 8-year-old brother Mariano, who refused to let go of his sister. Mariano was released a few hours later, but Franca was held for 8 days in the home of Melodia's sister and her husband (a farmhouse on the outskirts of the town), where she was repeatedly raped. Melodia told her that now she would be forced to marry him so as not to become a "dishonoured" woman, but Viola replied that she had no intention of marriage and, moreover, that she would have him sued for kidnapping and rape. On 31 December, Melodia contacted Viola's father Bernardo for the piacata (Sicilian for 'appeasement', meaning appeasement between the families of the man and woman who 'eloped'). Bernardo pretended to negotiate with the kidnappers, saying he agreed and consented to the marriage, while collaborating with the Carabinieri police in preparing a successful dragnet operation. Viola was released and her kidnappers arrested on 2 January 1966, seven days before her eighteenth birthday. She said her father asked her if she really wanted to marry Melodia and, when she said she did not, he told her he would do everything possible to help her.
Refusal of a rehabilitating marriage
Melodia offered Viola a rehabilitating marriage, but she refused, thus acting against what was the common practice in the Sicilian society of the time. According to traditional social code, this choice would make her a donna svergognata, or "woman without honour" (literally: a "shameless woman"), as she had lost her virginity without getting married. These concepts were not exclusive to Sicily or rural areas; to some extent, they were also implicit in the Italian Penal Code of the time, namely Article 544, which equated rape to a crime against "public morality" rather than a personal offence, and formalized the idea of a "rehabilitating marriage" (matrimonio riparatore), stating that a rapist who married his victim would have his crime automatically extinguished.
After Viola refused to marry her rapist, her family members were reportedly menaced, ostracised and persecuted by most of the townspeople, including their vineyard and barn being 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 public opinion. Melodia's lawyers claimed Viola had consented to a so-called fuitina (elopement, a runaway to get married secretly) rather than being kidnapped, but the trial found Melodia guilty. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, later reduced to 10 years, with a two-year period of compulsory residence in Modena. Five of his friends were acquitted, and the others received relatively mild sentences. Melodia was released from prison in 1976, and was killed in April 1978 in a mafia-style execution before he could return to Sicily.
Sexual violence became a crime against the person (instead of against "public morality") only in 1996.
Marriage of choice
Franca Viola married Giuseppe Ruisi in December 1968, when she was almost 21 years old. They had liked each other since childhood. Ruisi, an accountant, insisted he would have married the girl he had long loved despite threats and rumours, but had to request a firearm licence after obtaining the marriage licence, to protect himself and his future wife. Both the Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and Pope Paul VI publicly expressed their appreciation of Franca Viola's courage and their solidarity with the couple. President Saragat sent the couple a gift on their wedding day, and the pope received them in a private audience soon after. Viola and Ruisi would go on to have three children (two sons and one daughter).
Franca Viola still lives in Alcamo with her husband.
In 1970, director Damiano Damiani made the film The Most Beautiful Wife, starring Ornella Muti, based on Viola's case. In 2012 the Sicilian writer Beatrice Monroy published Viola's story under the title Niente ci fu ('There was nothing'). In 2017, a fifteen-minute film based on Viola's story, titled Viola, Franca, was included as a finalist in the Manhattan Short Film Festival.
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