Biographer Monique Goodliffe reviews the novel “Women Talking” by Miriam Toews in an important guest blog on fundamentalism and the treatment of women.
In a remote part of Bolivia, many girls and women woke up in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding. Their ages ranged from five to sixty-five. They had been attacked. But rather than having the assaults investigated, the women were blamed. They were told that it was the work of demons or ghosts. Or perhaps, some said, the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as a punishment for their sins; they could be lying to cover up adultery or they could be imagining it all.
This really happened and, shockingly, not so long ago.
Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia, it was revealed that eight men in the colony had been using an animal anaesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. At the trial in 2011, it was revealed that as many as 130 women had been drugged and raped.
The Mennonites are a religious group and originally part of the Protestant sect known as the Anabaptists – there are currently 2.1 million Anabaptists worldwide including Mennonites, Amish, Mennonite Brethren and Hutterites. The Mennonites follow the teachings of Simon Menno (1496-1561). They started in the Netherlands but soon spread all over Europe and then, following relentless persecution, they moved to the US, Canada and South America. In the twentieth century there was an exodus from the Ukraine following persecution there. Now Mennonites can be found in communities in 87 countries on six continents. Some communities of Mennonites, like the Amish, live a strictly enclosed life, eschewing modern dress and modern technology. They drive horse buggies, refuse to take part in politics, are pacifists and speak their own language, usually Plautdietsch. Others are more moderate and more integrated in the wider communities in which they live.
Miriam Toews (pronounced Taves) grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, so she speaks from experience. In an interview with The Guardian she spoke of how, when she heard of this incident, she felt she needed to write about it – she herself could have been one of these women. She was horrified but not surprised. ‘The details were shocking,’ she told the Guardian reporter, ‘but these types of crimes have always occurred in places like this. Extremist, closed communities are ripe for violence.’
The subject matter may be violent but Women Talking is not a violent book. It is, after all, only about women talking. Eight women from two families gather in a hayloft and perch on upturned milk buckets. And they talk about what they should do in the wake of the revelations about the attacks and the arrest of the men who have been accused of perpetrating them. Should they do nothing? Should they stay and fight? Or should they leave? These are the stark choices they face.
Over two days they talk and argue and discuss their options. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, confined in space and in time, these women shift the boundaries of what they have always known. They cover all sorts of topics, and we realise just how subversive and radical it is for them to do such an overtly simple thing. They articulate the dangerous idea that, as women, they are there to serve the men, to live out their days as ‘mute, submissive and obedient servants… animals’ as one character puts it. Even 14 year old boys are expected to give them orders, ‘determine their fates, vote on our excommunications, speak at the burials of our babies, while we remain silent, to interpret the Bible for us in worship, to punish us. We are not members… we are commodities’.
There is fierce rivalry between the women and differences of opinion, but over the course of the two day discussion, they all voice their opinions, jostling and clamouring to be heard. They only have two days because the men are away in the town where the accused are being held, attempting to plead for their release on bail. The women all come to the conclusion, after much debate, that they want three things: to keep their children safe; to keep their faith; and they want to be able to think. They challenge what they have been taught all their lives. They realise that fundamentally it’s all about power and that there is a difference between love and obedience. Finally they make a momentous decision, something they would never be expected to do in the normal course of events.
Toews makes this all the more real by having an outsider as narrator. August Epp, the schoolteacher, has been invited by one of the women to come and take the minutes of the discussion. The women have never been taught to read and write but they want a record of this meeting. Epp is a gentle soul, a representative of a different kind of masculinity, someone who has lived outside the community for a time but who is regarded by the other men as effete and unmanly. He strays outside of his role as secretary and becomes the women’s ally. He steals money for them, conceals their purpose from the rest of the community and provides them with a map – they have never been anywhere and so have no idea where they could escape to. They don’t even speak the language of the country they live in.
Ideas about masculinity emerge in other ways. The women worry about their sons. How can they educate the young boys so that they grow up compassionate and respectful? In these kinds of communities we realise, as we witness the discussion, men’s options are also limited. At the end of the first day, one of the women’s husbands returns to collect animals to sell to raise bail money for the accused. He erupts into the women’s space and suddenly we see how violent and uncontrolled he is, demanding to know what they are doing in the hayloft. When they have to lie, telling him they have been quilting, he rounds on Epp and sneers that perhaps he is finally learning a useful skill – usually he is such a ‘dummkopf in the field’. The women stand up to him and they resist the pressure to sell their horses, but next day his wife and daughter appear with their faces battered and bruised and his wife has her arm in a sling fashioned from a feedbag.
This is a timely book in many ways. It is also well worth reading in its own right as an exploration of what happens when one group in a society challenges the ‘truth’ as they have always been told it.
 Interview with Miriam Toews by Katrina Onstad 18-8-2018
 Women Talking pp120-1