In Women Talking by Miriam Toews, a group of women sort life out after experiencing terrible assaults. What makes this unique is that the women are all conservative Mennonites living in the isolated, fictional colony called Molotschna. But this isn’t strictly a work of imagination. Toews bases her book on true events in a Mennonite community in rural Bolivia.
In both instances, women and girls are assaulted as they sleep. The attackers spray them with animal anesthetic to knock them out during the attacks. Upon waking, they are not only drowsy, but also bruised and bleeding. In some cases, they become pregnant. It’s an unspeakable crime, made worse by the fact it’s perpetrated by men from their own community. In addition, elders tell the women the attacks must be caused by ghosts, demons, Satan, or God’s punishment.
What Toews imagines is the conversations of eight such women in her fictional community of Molotschna. The community stops the culprits, but the women must decide their next steps. Since they can’t read or write, they appoint the young male schoolteacher to take minutes for them. He is the narrator of this story.
It’s odd for a man’s voice to talk for the women, who are arguably the main characters here. But I think that’s part of the point. Toews represents a community that’s patriarchy in the extreme. The rest of the world is also mostly a patriarchy, but we often sidestep and sweep it under the rug. Toews puts it all on the table in a way we can’t ignore.
These women are courage times a thousand. They know nothing of the outside world, and yet they are willing to consider fleeing to the unknown. The crimes against them are just that horrible. It’s inspiring and heart breaking in equal measure.
Toews is spare in her prose and action, yet she creates intensely emotional moments. This is a unique perspective on women’s roles, and the necessity to take a stand and say, “No more.”
I recommend if you’re curious about the impact of both closed, religious communities and extreme patriarchy on women’s lives.
Pair with Women’s Minyan, by Naomi Ragen, a play about women in a closed community coming together to process events and make a decision. Or go nonfiction with something like Down Girl by Kate Manne.