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Parable of the Brave: The lonely, exhausting protest of a Kerala nun against the patriarchy of the Church

The tussle with the hard-line rules of the Catholic Church intensified every time she attempted to redraw the boundaries of her rights as a nun

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: August 30, 2021 8:40:53 am
Catholic nuns, Catholic nuns in Kerala, Kerala's Sister Lucy, Kerala nun rape case, patriarchal structure of the Church, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsSister Lucy (Photo courtesy: Sister Lucy)

In early September 2018, Kerala was witness to an extraordinary protest by five Catholic nuns against a powerful bishop, Fr Franco Mulakkal, accused of raping a fellow nun. As the five nuns, dressed in dark brown habit, sat at the Vanchi Square in Kochi, metres away from the Kerala High Court demanding the arrest of the accused, 270 km away, at a convent in Wayanad district, Sr Lucy Kalappura felt a weight on her chest.

A Mathematics teacher and a member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) under the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church for over three decades, Sr Lucy, 56, was acquainted with tales of oppression of women inside the Church. “It takes a great deal of courage to speak up against a powerful man. When I heard her (victim’s) account for the first time, I knew that she was speaking the truth. I believed her,” said Sr Lucy.

But the attitude of her fellow nuns at the FCC convent was vastly indifferent. As they sat over lunch one day, their eyes glued to the scenes of the protest on TV, lewd remarks questioning the morality of the rape victim flowed across the table. It was clear their sympathies lay with the accused. Sr Lucy felt her blood boiling.

“I knew then that I had to go to Kochi and extend my solidarity with them. I wanted to let the victim and her fellow nuns know that I will stand with them,” she said.

A few days later, when she got a long weekend’s leave at the school where she taught, Sr Lucy took off in her white Alto for the protest venue. “The blood in my veins calmed only after I climbed the stage at the protest and shook hands with the nuns there. I felt a deep sense of relief.”

But true to her expectations, the Church didn’t take kindly to her action. Aside from participating in the protest, she had given freewheeling interviews to the media questioning the Church leadership’s inaction in the rape case. By doing so, she had broken the rule of ‘anusarana’ or obedience, one of the three vows that Catholic nuns are duty-bound to observe. Shortly after Sr Lucy returned to her convent in Wayanad, the local diocese hit back by outlawing her from her duties at the parish, including teaching Bible and offering holy communion. The informal decision was later reversed after the locals came together in the nun’s support.

But the Church didn’t back down. It sent show-cause notices to Sr Lucy asking her to explain why she shouldn’t face expulsion. She had always been a rebel in its eyes, having self-published a book of poems, getting a driving licence and buying a car. Protesting against the accused bishop was simply the last straw.

In August 2019, the FCC announced Sr Lucy’s expulsion from the congregation on account of her “failure to give a satisfactory explanation for her lifestyle in violation of the proper law of the FCC.” In June this year, the Church said the Vatican had rejected the nun’s appeal against her dismissal for the third and final time, virtually shutting all doors for her to get a reprieve. Nearly three years after that protest, Sr Lucy is proof that standing up to a powerful institution such as the Catholic Church and pointing out its foibles is a lonely and exhausting enterprise.

On a recent rainy morning, when I arrived at the Karakkamala FCC convent to interview Sr Lucy for this piece, a sign outside the imposing building painted in blue, read, “Without the permission of the Mother Superior, no one should enter the convent.” It was installed in a bid to dissuade those coming to meet Sr Lucy, especially journalists. Sr Lucy had instructed me to wait outside on the road. A few minutes later, she appeared, dressed not in her usual white or brown habit, but in a bright yellow-and-black salwar-kameez, an attire she had decided to wear early on for non-church activities. It was also among her 13 “transgressions” counted by the Church.

“The habit we wear is made of extremely cheap polyester cloth. It gets very hot in it. This is a foreign attire and it has to be modified for the local climate here. Besides, if priests have the liberty to wear shirts and pants outside church, why can’t nuns?” questioned Sr Lucy as she sat on the porch of a small home inside a field of pine trees not far from the convent.

Catholic nuns, Catholic nuns in Kerala, Kerala's Sister Lucy, Kerala nun rape case, patriarchal structure of the Church, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news A file photo of nuns’ protest in Kochi in 2018, demanding the arrest of accused Bishop Franco Mulakkal. (Vignesh Krishnamoorthy/Express Archive)

Countering inequality is a trait she picked up from her father early on in her childhood. She was born as the seventh of 11 kids — six boys and five girls — into an affluent, land-owning family in Karikkottakary in Kannur district in 1965. “My father was a popular social worker in the area and he would frequently intervene in local disputes and try to solve them. I was always struck by his kindness and benevolence towards the workers. The idea of becoming a social worker and helping the poor came to me because of him. At home, too, we were 11 kids, but there was no gender discrimination among us. That’s why there’s still a lot of love among us and they support me,” said Sr Lucy.

In primary school, Sr Lucy wanted to be like the nuns who taught her at FCC. When she was in pre-degree (equivalent to class XI now), her eldest sister joined the Church. “She was sent off from home in full wedding attire, complete with jewellery, flowers and tiara. At the church, she has to renounce everything, including all of us. When she took the vows, it was a very moving and emotional moment,” said Sr Lucy.

She followed suit in 1985. “Frankly, I had no despair about renouncing material pleasures or adopting a frugal lifestyle. I wanted to be a social worker and at the time, I thought that the church would help me remain single and pursue my work,” she says.

One of the early conflicts with the highly patriarchal structure of the Church came in 1993, said Sr Lucy, when she was deputed to go to Bundi in Rajasthan to teach at a Church-run school there. She was quick to learn Hindi and mingle with children from destitute families there. During her second year there, an elderly Goan priest took charge. “He wanted me to go to his house, scrub the floors and cook food for him. The other sisters did as told but I refused. He got angry and would badmouth me in front of the students. I returned to Kerala soon after,” she said.

From then on, the internal tussle with her superiors and the hard-line rules of the Church intensified every time she attempted to redraw the boundaries of her rights as a nun. When she submitted a request to the Church to fund her book of poems, Snehamazhayil (In the rain of love) in 2015, she claims the Church repeatedly turned it down till she published it herself in 2018.

Around the same time, her requests to obtain a driving licence and buy a car were also dismissed by the Church. A car, she argued, was necessary to commute to her school every day and to visit homes of the local parishioners. She found it deplorable that nuns had to beg for commuting expenses or a lift from the local priest to make their journeys while the men in the church operated by different rules. Defying the church, Sr Lucy took driving lessons at the age of 53 and eventually bought a Maruti Alto on a bank loan.

If these incidents of rebellion made Sr Lucy a talking point in Karakkamala, the protests against Bishop Franco turned her into a darling of the liberal masses in Kerala. Those in the government and across the political aisle however said little, aware of the risks of angering the Catholic Church that wields influence over 61per cent of the Christians in the state. “My lawyer said that I’m like a drop of water staring at the sea,” said Sr Lucy with a child-like glee.

The support on social media platforms and among progressive laymen thirsting for change within the Church however has only made Sr Lucy’s case more arduous. At the convent where she stays, she remains ostracised. She has no access to the common kitchen or the dining room. None of the other nuns speak to her. And last month, the power line to her room was cut off purportedly by the other nuns and she had to wage a hunger strike to get the police to reconnect the line.

As she waits for the case to come up, she says, “If the judge is conscientious, I am 100 per cent confident that he will rule in my favour. But if it’s not, this doesn’t end here. I will appeal till the Supreme Court. A woman cannot be thrown onto the street illegally. That’s why I am fighting. It’s not my personal issue. It’s a social issue.”

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