ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Gender Justice and Its Impediments

Public support for the protesting nuns in Kerala signals hope for the cause of gender justice.

The recent protest by five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation on behalf of a fellow nun, who has accused the former Bishop of Jalandhar of sexually abusing her several times over the course of two years, has placed the Catholic Church of Kerala under serious moral scrutiny. It has not only revealed the church’s objectionable attitude towards the issue of gender justice, but has also exposed the sceptical approach that the state seems to have adopted regarding it. This context, therefore, forces one to take due cognisance of two rather striking ­aspects of the protest. First is the nuns’ protest, which appears unusual on account of their ability to demonstrate exemplary courage against the religious institution to which they belong by faith and practice. Second, the nun’s legitimate cry for justice has also sought to galvanise the larger community that stood in solidarity with her. Arriving on the heels of the #MeToo movement, and amidst global allegations of sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests and high-level cover-ups, Kerala’s “Church Too” movement locates itself within one of the most divisive crises facing the Catholic Church today. But, at the heart of the protests is the question of justice and the impediments that seem to have led to the denial of gender justice.

The sphere of the sacred, by definition, is supposed to empty out from within a person the destructive elements of the sensual and libidinal. In a normative sense, the church is expected to protect the dignity—constitutive of both, the moral and physical integrity—of a person, in the present case, the nun. It is perhaps with this expectation in the structures of the church that the nun petitioned the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the Apostolic Nuncio of India, and church officials in Rome, including the Vatican state secretary and the Pope. It seems that there was some response on the part of the church authorities, but this was clearly in favour of the accused bishop and positively against the nun. The church’s much delayed intervention led injustice to take a morally more offensive form. This was evident in the ensuing character assassination of the nun, suggesting the biased role of the church in the subversion of the process of justice. It is interesting to note that the Kerala High Court has now rejected the bail plea of the bishop citing prima facie evidence against him, and casting doubt on the merit of the church’s internal inquiry into the matter.

The church, in an attempt to establish its own patriarchal ­morality, has, in the present case, treated gender justice as an “in-house” question to be settled within the community. Community logic led the church to issue a moral caution that the nun’s attempt to appeal for justice in public would tarnish the image of the community. This communitarian logic has sought to thwart the attainment of justice.

Using patriarchal morality to silence rape survivors has been a universal experience. This silencing through various pressure tactics is not new, and in the present case, calls into question the deeply unequal gender roles within the church. Consecrated to religious life, but not the clergy, nuns figure much lower in the rigid canonical hierarchies of the church. A bishop, on the other hand, draws his authority from canon law, and is accorded a powerful place in this hierarchy, overseeing various congregations within the diocese. Gender relations within the church are thus skewed, and any dissent against a bishop is taken as an affront to the church. This effectively stifles protest, rendering nuns as easy targets of oppression, silencing them, and severing all avenues for justice.

A subversion of the process of justice within the institutional confines of the church would then demand the intervention of the state as the purveyor of justice. However, the Catholic Church has traditionally wielded considerable influence over the Christian vote bank, especially in central Kerala. The material prosperity and the influence of the Christian community, now accounting for a population share of 18.4%, of which 60% are Catholics, have enabled the church to continually exert its power in the political sphere. Neither the ruling Left Front, which—with the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a serious political contender—has seen a consolidation of Christian votes in recent times, nor the opposition, for which Christians form a traditional vote bank, took up the cause of the protesting nuns. The silence of the political parties is clearly indicative of vote bank politics trumping any attempt at the assertion of justice.

The foot-dragging by the church and political parties on the issue of gender justice has, however, not dampened the spirit of the people. The indefinite protest by the nuns received overwhelming support from the dissenting laity, members of other factions of the Christian community, civil society organisations, women’s groups, artists, and the media. It was this support from the politically conscious public rallying behind the nuns’ cause that was instrumental in turning the tide in favour of the protestors. It is encouraging to note that the public support for the protesting nuns has infused new energy and hope for the cause of gender justice. This new momentum bears promise to remove the deep-rooted impediments in the delivery of justice.

Updated On : 9th Oct, 2018

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