DIGEST May 2024

Women Talking

On a June morning in 2009, in the isolated Mennonite colony of Molotschna, somewhere in South America, eight women from two families—the Friesens and the Loewens—meet in the hayloft of a barn to talk. They are deciding what to do in response to the rapes that have devastated their community. Eight men—some of them their close relatives—have been arrested and taken to the city to be judged. Nearly every female member of the colony has been violated; many have been severely injured and some have contracted a sexually transmitted infection or become pregnant as a result.

The women’s conversation is urgent because the remaining men of the colony have gone to the city to post bail for the accused. The women know that, if the accused men return home, the women of Molotschna “will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven.” Peters, the bishop of Molotschna, has warned the women that if they don’t forgive, they will have to leave the colony for the outside world, a world which they know nothing about.

But some of the women don’t want to forgive. Salome Friesen even attacked one of the rapists with a scythe.

Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, Women Talking, recounts the women’s debates, as they consider two starkly different options: stay and fight, or leave the colony. The other option, to do nothing, has already lost in a vote of all the women in the colony. Some of the “do nothing” women have made it clear that, whatever is ultimately decided, they will not join in any action. The most vocal of them is Scarface Janz, who likes to say that she has everything she wants at Molotschna because she has convinced herself that she wants “very little.”

The three options the women of Molotschna voted on, each accompanied by an illustration since the women cannot read: Do Nothing (clouds in the sky), Stay and Fight, and Leave.

Miriam Toews herself was born in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada, and several of her novels center on the lives and struggles of Mennonite women in these fundamentalist, often isolated communities. Toews’ writing also grapples with issues of mental health. Toews’ father and sister both died by suicide.

Women Talking is, in Toews’ words, “a reaction through fiction and an act of female imagination” to shocking real-life events that took place between 2005 and 2009 in an off-the-grid Mennonite colony in Bolivia. There, over the span of four years, over 130 women and girls aged 3 to 65 were raped at night after being knocked out with belladonna spray, an anesthetic used for animals. When the women raised the issue with their colony’s council of (male) church ministers, they were told that ghosts and demons had attacked them, or that they were lying to get attention or cover up their sins. But nine men from the colony were eventually caught and brought to justice, and a Bolivian court sentenced them to lengthy sentences in 2011.

Four young Mennonite girls in the remote colony of Manitoba (named after the Canadian province), Bolivia, in 2011. In 2009, eight men from the colony were sentenced for committing more than 140 rapes over four years
Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

Women of the real-life Mennonite colony of Manitoba, Bolivia, in 2011
Credit: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

In Women Talking, Toews explores many of the issues with which victims of sexual violence struggle: abusers’ need for power and control, the role of material and spiritual dependence, what happens after a person leaves their abuser, whose voice is credible or even heard, whether forgiveness or healing is possible, how to channel rage and the desire for revenge, how to overcome fear and find agency, the imperative to protect one’s children, and more.

The Friesen and Loewen women are trusted figures and, as such, have been deputized by other women to choose the course of action. The discussion is led by Greta Loewen and Agata Friesen, the oldest women of each family. Their daughters, Mariche and Mejal Loewen and Ona and Salome Friesen, and granddaughters Autje Loewen and Neitje Friesen, complete the group. Meeting minutes are taken (in English) by August Epp at the request of Ona, his childhood friend, who is now pregnant as a result of rape.

August only recently returned to Molotschna. When he was twelve, his parents were excommunicated by the colony’s then bishop, Peters the elder, allegedly for keeping art books. He and his parents left for England. After suffering numerous travails in England including a nervous breakdown, the disappearance of his father, a stint in jail, expulsion from university, and the death of his mother, August decided to return to the colony. He now teaches English to the Molotschnan boys, but remains an outcast since he refuses to disown his parents.

After washing each other’s feet as an act of service, the women engage in fierce, honest, at times chaotic or comical, and often painful debates. They are illiterate and only speak Plautdietsch, an ancient, unwritten form of German. They have no money, and some of the women are old or sick. They have many children—as many as 15 or even 25 in a few cases. Leaving the colony would be extremely hard. How would they survive? Should they stay instead and fight to change their community? Is that even possible?

Most of the novel, as its title makes clear, is dialogue between the women. It is as riveting as a debate between Socrates and his followers might have been, although different women take turns as Socrates, asking the hard or unanswerable questions. Toews excels at conveying the intimacy and even poetry of these discussions, and I often re-read and pondered certain sentences. “When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are,” says Ona at one point. “It is possible to leave something or someone in one frame of mind and arrive elsewhere, in another entirely unexpected frame of mind,” suggests August as the women discuss reasons for departures.

Three main concerns emerge from the women’s discussions. First, the question of forgiveness. If they choose to stay, can they can truly forgive the men? Mariche poses the dilemma this way: “Should the women avenge the harm perpetrated against them? Or should they instead forgive the men and by doing so be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? We will be forced to leave the colony, she says, if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in heaven.”

In a comic but poignant moment, Mariche considers a consequence of their departure she hadn’t anticipated: “How will the Lord, when He arrives, find all the women if we aren’t in Molotschna?” Non-nonsense Salome cuts her off by replying that surely Jesus, if He has such extraordinary powers, will be able to find them wherever they are.

Several of the women realize they won’t be able to forgive the men. Yet if they stay and try to fight the men, they realize they will lose the fight and will be forced to “forgive.” Ona asks: “But is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness? And isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive? Can’t there be a category of forgiveness that is up to God alone, a category that includes perpetration of violence upon one’s children, an act so impossible for a parent to forgive that God, in His wisdom, would take exclusively upon Himself the responsibility for such forgiveness?”

Ona goes on, alluding to the silencing that prevails in the colony: “If it has been decided by the elders and the bishop of Molotschna that we women don’t require counselling following the attacks because we weren’t conscious when they happened, then what are we obliged, or even able, to forgive? Something that didn’t happen?”

Time and again, the women have to remind themselves that the attacks did happen, that they did not imagine them, that they were raped by men and not by ghosts or devils. Even worse, the perpetrators have shown no guilt. “The men of Molotschna, and particularly the attackers, have not asked for forgiveness,” Salome points out.

Ben Whishaw (August), Rooney Mara (Ona) and Claire Foy (Salome) in the 2022 movie Women Talking

Questions about faith and what God asks of them are closely interwoven with those about forgiveness. Mennonites make a vow of pacifism and Mennonite men refuse to serve in war as a matter of conscience. If the women stay and fight the men, they will be “guilty of the sin of rebellion.” The women value their faith, but it seems to require their surrender and submission.

Ona then poses the question of how to ensure the protection of the children in that context: “Is it accurate to say that at this moment we women are asking ourselves what our priority is, and what is right—to protect our children or to enter the kingdom of heaven?”

These are terrible dilemmas.

From time to time, August tries to offer metaphors to advance the discussion, although he isn’t sure of their usefulness. He speaks to the women about the Black Sea, where Mennonites originally came from. The Black Sea’s deep layers are anoxic, without oxygen, and therefore empty of life. “Yet underwater there is a river, a mysterious river that scientists believe can sustain life in the bottom part of the Black Sea, the inhospitable part. But these scientists have no way of proving it.” Mariche asks him if he means the women of Molotschna are the river in its deeper layers, able to thrive despite being oppressed by the “severe and lifeless pressure of the men”, and whether that means they should stay. August demurs, saying he was trying to be inspirational.

Salome, who wants revenge, questions why they should be teaching their daughters to flee instead of fighting. Miep, Salome’s youngest daughter, was raped several times and has contracted an STI. Bishop Peters has denied medical treatment for Miep to avoid rumors spreading outside the colony, and Salome had to walk twelve miles to the nearest colony to obtain antibiotics from a mobile clinic. But the group concludes they would not be fleeing; they would be leaving.

The excellent cast of Women Talking, the 2022 movie directed by Sarah Polley: first row, from left to right: Sheila McCarthy (Greta), Jessie Buckley (Mariche), Liv McNeil (Neitje), Rooney Mara (Ona); second row: Michelle T McLeod (Mejal), Kate Hallett (Autje), Claire Foy (Salome), Judith Ivey (Agata). Not on this photo: the always affecting Frances McDormand as a hardened Scarface

Agata, Ona’s mother, reiterates her belief that violence is unjustifiable and concludes that, by staying in the colony, “we women would be betraying the central tenet of the Mennonite faith, which is pacifism, because by staying we would knowingly be placing ourselves in a direct collision course with violence, perpetrated by us or against us. We would be inviting harm. We would be in a state of war, we would turn Molotschna into a battlefield. By staying in Molotschna, we would be bad Mennonites. We would be sinners, according to our faith, and we would be denied entry into heaven.” The women agree. Salome abandons her desire to fight because she realizes that, if she stays, she will “become a murderer.”

From a distance, once they have left the colony, Agata hopes that they could embrace forgiveness, compassion and love. They begin to develop a concept of faith that bypasses the judgment of the church leaders. Eschewing the idea that they are being “disobedient,” they argue that God would surely approve of their leaving.

Mejal, who has spent most of her time listening while smoking hand-rolled tobacco, speaks up: “God might define it otherwise, our leaving.”

“And how do you think God would define our leaving?” asks Ona.

“As a time for love, a time for peace,” says Mejal. Everyone smiles and August realizes that this is probably the first time the women of Molotschna have interpreted the word of God for themselves.

Ona then raises another option: “We could ask the men to leave.” The women gasp. After some debate, Agata concludes that isn’t an option: “None of us have ever asked the men for anything. Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to go easy on the small yearlings or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or the thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body. Isn’t it interesting that the one and only request the women would make of the men would be to leave?”

The women break out laughing uncontrollably. No, asking the men to leave isn’t an option. The women will be the ones who leave.

The women want to be clear about their reasons for leaving. “We want our children to be safe. We want to keep our faith.” As they reflect on the previous two days, Agata adds: “I’d add that we have already also determined that we want to have time and space to think. This is another reason for leaving Molotschna, but one that doesn’t have anything to do directly with the attacks or the attackers.” They agree on that third reason. A hayloft of one’s own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf.

Miep and several other small children are being cared for by Nettie Gerbrandt, who was also raped and had a miscarriage. Nettie now goes by the name of Melvin and has stopped talking to adults. The women ask Melvin to get the small children ready.

They begin organizing their departure, and ask August to find them a map. They have one remaining concern: what to do about their male children? The younger women, Autje and Neitje, express worry that their brothers will be violated once the women and girls are gone. Agata suggests all boys under the age of fifteen accompany them, and that is settled. The women decide that, as a tenet of their pacifism and non-violence, they have a duty to change the boys, to educate them to be compassionate and respectful.

Ona puts her finger on the gender norms and the power dynamics at the root of the attacks: “Peters said these men are evil, the perpetrators, but that’s not true. It’s the quest for power, on the part of Peters and the elders and on the part of the founders of Molotschna, that is responsible for these attacks, because in their quest for power, they needed to have those they’d have power over, and those people are us. And they have taught this lesson of power to the boys and men of Molotschna, and the boys and men of Molotschna have been excellent students.” It’s not about a few bad apples or individual behavior.

The women have to hurry to prepare the departure of all the women, the children below fifteen, two elderly and disabled men, and Melvin. They inform the rest of the women of the colony of their decision. A few of the do-nothing women have decided they will come with them, but Scarface remains unmoved.

They arrange to hide some of the horses and load up provisions and all the farm animals they can take. August takes the safe from the coop and a stick of dynamite for the women to blow it up when they are far enough away. When two boys from a neighboring colony barge in on their departure preparations, Autje and Neitje, like true Mata Haris, invite them to the loft for a tryst so they can be sprayed with belladonna, putting them to sleep. Scarface is also sprayed in her house to ensure she doesn’t tell the men which direction the women went.

As August watches them pull out with their horses and buggies, he hands Salome the minutes of the meetings. To his horror, he has just realized that Peters, the bishop, is the keeper of the belladonna spray. And Ona, two days earlier, has told August that his parents were excommunicated not because of art books, but because young August looked uncannily like young bishop Peters. The abuse starts at the top.

August urges Salome: “Don’t come back. Don’t ever come back, any of you.”

When Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and her brother Noah, two American journalists who covered the real-life trial of the Mennonite men in Bolivia, returned to the Bolivian colony in 2013, they found that the events had been swept under the carpet. The men were still in jail, but no colony-wide discussion had ever taken place. None of the women were ever offered therapy or psychological support. Silence had prevailed.

The journalists also came to understand that the accused had been handed over to the police in 2009 not to protect the women, but because the victims’ husbands and fathers had threatened to lynch the rapists. The colony’s church leaders, rather than bring perpetrators to justice, typically excommunicated them and asked them to repent before they could be readmitted. Serial offenders were eventually permanently excommunicated and forced out of the colony. This, of course, meant that entire families had to leave with abusers. Even more troubling was the journalists finding out that nightly rapes under anesthesia were still happening, and that incest and child molestation were rampant.

Unlike in the book, the Bolivian Mennonite women had not left.

Women Talking was made into an award-winning film in 2022, with Rooney Mara as Ona and Claire Foy as Salome. It features a powerful ensemble cast and—a rare thing in film—women in long conversations about themselves, their lives, their hopes and their desires. I highly recommend both the novel and the movie.

In feminist solidarity,