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The rebellion by Kerala nuns is a new chapter in an old story

The recent protest by four Catholic nuns in Kerala against anti-Muslim remarks is of a piece with their long fight against sexual abuse by priests

Representational image: Interior of a church in Ernakulam, Kerala.
Representational image: Interior of a church in Ernakulam, Kerala. (Photo by Jacob Antony on Unsplash)

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Poverty, chastity and obedience. These are the three vows a Catholic nun takes when she enters the convent. Priests also take similar vows. But what happens when everything nuns have dedicated their lives to is turned on its head and they are forced to break their vows?

Last week, some nuns Anupama Kelamangalathuveliyil, Alphy Pallasseril and Ancitta Urumbil from Kottayam in Kerala walked out of a prayer service at St Francis Mission Home, accusing the priest, Rajeev, of hate speech against Muslims. The priest, they said, had spoken of “narcotic jihad” and “love jihad”, and had also asked the congregation to boycott Muslim businesses. Sr Anupama said she was shocked: “Christ has taught us to love not spread communalism.”

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In 2019, these nuns, along with Sister Lucy—who is still paying the price for her stance—led a protest demanding action against a powerful bishop Franco Mulakkal, accused of repeatedly raping another nun between 2014 and 2016. It had taken the survivor four years to file a formal complaint because the church authorities to whom she appealed refused to investigate.

These brave women have broken their vows of obedience to speak out against priests who have broken most of their vows. Among the many uncomfortable questions they are asking is: When a senior bishop, who is in a position of power, asks a nun to have sex with him or forces himself on her, and the nun protests, which vow is she breaking—the one of obedience or of chastity?

In fact, their superiors are furious about the nuns’ “disobedience”. Sister Lucy has been dismissed from her order and asked to vacate the convent at the Franciscan Clarist Congregation in Wayanad, which she entered 39 years ago when she was 17, for “acts of disobedience”, including raising her voice against rape. When the Church superiors and the Vatican turned down her pleas, she moved the courts for protection, arguing for herself as her lawyer has refused to represent her. She’s still awaiting resolution. Meanwhile, the bishop is out on bail.

The gender dynamics have always been skewed but earlier protests were low-key. In the mid-1970s, I spoke to some young nuns who had fled a convent in Italy and were hiding in Kottayam. The ‘Kerala nun-running scandal’ was at its peak and these 20-year-olds were afraid to talk, afraid they would be caught and sent back, afraid of their own families and the repercussions. Their act of rebellion was personal and secret.

In the 1960s and ’70s, teenaged Catholic girls from Kerala were sent to Europe, where the convents needed recruits since local girls were hesitant to take vows. Their huge convents had been built at a time when local nuns were plentiful, and now needed ‘imported nuns’ to keep them running. An estimated 800-odd nuns had been sent to Germany alone, news reports said. The teenaged girls were usually from needy backgrounds and had never left their villages before. Most had been told they would get an education, to prepare them for a career in nursing or teaching, but found themselves put to work in convents. 

Around 1972, US and European newspapers broke this “scandalous human trafficking story”. The Indian newspapers followed and investigations began. The German and Indian churches came under a cloud as bishops were involved. One priest from Kottayam was finally traced as the “main recruiter”, who collected money from his European counterparts for each nun sent across.

But the girls I spoke to knew nothing of it. They had fled because they could not bear that life any more. They had been lucky to find a relative who helped them get out of Italy and come home. They told me there was none of the education they’d been promised; instead they were treated as “slaves or prisoners” and made to clean toilets and mop the never-ending marble corridors. From relatively free lives in their villages, they had landed in an alien land with hostile superiors who spoke a language they did not understand and forced to eat food which they disliked. They were still traumatized.

Representational image: A church in Kerala.
Representational image: A church in Kerala. ( Nilotpal Maity on Unsplash)

A few years ago, documentary filmmaker Raju E. Raphael and researcher K. Rajagopal made a film, Ariyappedatha Jeevithangal, on the nuns who were shipped off to Europe over 50 years ago. He found that many of the nuns who had stuck it out had reached senior positions in their convents as the number of European nuns continues to dwindle. They did speak of very tough times in the early years, but had made their peace with it. They were now in positions of power. Not all stories ended this way, of course.

Nuns in Kerala have rebelled before against the skewed gender dynamics and misuse of power by males within the church. But the Franco case was the tipping point; it changed things. It was the first time that the normally reticent nuns sat in protest in public and spoke to the media without the permission of their superiors. It gave them the courage to speak in public about other injustices.

Sister Lucy’s tell-all autobiography Karthavine Namathil has exposed much of the injustice within the Catholic Church in Kerala. She has written explicitly about the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests. Nuns are trained from a very young age to obey their superiors, and disobedience is punished severely. It lays the ground, she indicates, for a fear of refusing the more powerful priests or speaking out against sexual assault. If rape or an ‘affair’ ended in pregnancy, the nuns were forced to leave the convent or abandon the baby, while the priests are rarely penalized, she writes.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the time I interviewed Sister Jesme, a former nun who wrote an explosive autobiography, Amen, in 2009. After spending several decades in the convent, she had risen to the position of the principal of a prestigious college but had walked out when she felt nothing would change within the system. Jesme was the first one to speak about something never mentioned in public before: the sexual harassment of nuns inside the convents. She had first-hand experience of it.

Jesme, the former nun who wrote an explosive autobiography, Amen, in 2009.
Jesme, the former nun who wrote an explosive autobiography, Amen, in 2009. (Wikipedia)

She told me she had entered the convent as “a soft and meek girl of 17”, full of hope and love for the life she had chosen. She’d been exploited in various ways, from being made to “work so hard by the nuns I had no time to pray” to being sexually abused. Her vow of obedience meant she did as she was told, often not understanding what she was going through. If she complained to her superiors she was silenced or shamed and told not to “bring a bad name to the convent”. “We sisters are so fragile,” she told me. “We know nothing when we enter the convent.”

Finally, she reached breaking point and she left the order. She now offers support and counselling to sisters who need it. “I have never once regretted devoting my life to Christ,” she said. What she spurned was the hypocrisy inside the convent.

This patriarchy and silence is what nuns like Sister Lucy and Sister Anupama are still protesting against. They’ve taken their fight beyond the Church and to the courts. It’s time for real action.

Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.

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