Women Talking Book Review: Navigating Safety, Ethics, and Faith

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In 2009, in a secluded Mennonite colony in Bolivia, it was revealed that for a period of five years several men had been repeatedly drugging and raping girls and women throughout the colony. Victims from over 100 households were identified in the trial held two years later, but it is believed the actual number assaulted was much higher. When the women in the colony would speak of pain or bruising or waking up unusually drowsy, male family members and colony leaders would say that they were visited by the devil or would dismiss their claims out-right as wild female imagination.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is a fictionalized depiction of events directly following the reveal of these real-life assaults. The author, Toews (pronounced “Taves”), is a Mennonite herself. Because she grew up in a similar situation as these women, she felt an obligation to tell the story of these events: “I needed to write about these women, I could have been one of them.” In this transcribed radio interview, Toews compares her upbringing with the Manitoba colony:

It’s similar in that the rules are very much the same. Certainly the misogyny within the culture, the culture of control, discipline, guilt, et cetera. But some of the details were very different. The community that I grew up in was a very conservative, is a very conservative Mennonite community. It was the first Mennonite settlement in Canada. But we, for instance, drove cars. We left the community from time to time, whereas in these closed colonies — for instance, the one at the heart of the book — the women, you know, really in my opinion are prisoners, in a sense. They don’t speak the language of the country that they’re in, they don’t read and write, they don’t leave the colony without being accompanied by a man.

‘Women Talking’ Gives A Human Voice To Horror’ NPR Weekend Edition

The novel begins just when the attackers are about to return to the village after being released on bail. The women have been given a charge by their colony leader: they must forgive the attackers in order to ascend to heaven and avoid repercussions from the community. But the women fear future attacks on both themselves and their young daughters. In addition, they do not know if they are capable of forgiving these men now—or ever.

Skip to Women Talking discussion questions

To explain the importance that Mennonites place on compassion and forgiveness, my girlfriend shared with us the tale of Dirk Willems. In 1569, the Mennonite faith (then called Anabaptist) was gaining traction, and because secular leaders feared the challenge would lead to societal breakdown, Anabaptists were persecuted with fines, exile, and even execution. As the tale goes, a Dutch man named Dirk Willems was jailed and convicted for being an Anabaptist. He escaped and fled across the ice, but his pursuer fell through. While he could have continued to freedom, he stopped to save the life of his pursuer. Dirk Willems was then recaptured and burned at the stake for practicing this new religion, which valued the then-radical concepts of believer’s baptism, separating church and state, and peaceful nonviolence and nonresistance.

Having someone from the Mennonite faith to talk us through the values from a broader perspective helped me understand the struggle of the women in this story even more. For example, when Salome expresses violent thoughts and even enacts violence upon the men who attacked and raped her daughter, I felt 100% behind her—how could I expect her to act differently than I believe I would? But if your faith was built on the foundation that non-violence was a fundamental value—then resorting to violence in those circumstances would be different. Still, Salome’s diatribe is emotive and compelling:

Salome erupts. She raises her voice, causing Miep to awaken and Julius to stop chewing on the leather. We do not have to be forgiven by the men of God, she shouts, for protecting our children from the depraved actions of vicious men who are often the very same men we are meant to ask for forgiveness. If God is a loving God He will forgive us Himself. If God is a vengeful God then He has created us in His image. If God is omnipotent then why has he not protected the women and girls of Molotschna? If God, in the book of Matthew, according to Peters, our wise bishop, asks: Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, then mustn’t we consider it a hindrance when our children are attacked?

Salome pauses, perhaps to rest…

No, not to rest. Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.

What are the implications for their immortal souls if they don’t forgive their attackers? What are the implications for their immediate safety if they do? With their limited resources and education, can they risk leaving? Should they risk staying? Women Talking is the exploration of these questions. While violence against women, misogyny, and efforts to control women’s bodies still occur the world round, the answers are relevant to all of us.


Wine Selection & Tasting Notes

Fend & Foster Pinot Noir. Scent is jammy, plummy, vanilla, intense mineral. On the palate: red plum, red apple, green olive. Unexpectedly and pleasantly dry. Recommend enjoying with savory food.


How Did It Happen For So Long?

When you first learn of these sexual assaults, it’s natural to ask how they could have occurred for so many years. The Mennonite colony of Manitoba is not obligated to report any crimes (except murder). The husbands and fathers, all the way up to the chief civic official, Abram Wall Enns, took no action when women reported waking with blood in their beds, ripped clothing, and being bruised and disoriented. This policy of keeping quiet allowed these violent crimes to continue for years and to affect many more women and children. Disturbingly, the most recent news from after the trial is that rapes and molestations may still be occurring and are still not discussed.   

Mennonites in less conservative Bolivian colonies say that when news of the alleged rapes reached them, there was grief — but not shock. Many Manitoba Colony members themselves now acknowledge the trouble. Abram Peters — whose son, defendant Abram Peters Dick, is accused of buying his first drugging spray from Weiber at age 14 — says the men are scapegoats for Manitoba’s broader sins. “Rapes happen [in Manitoba] all the time,” he claims, “within families too.”

A Verdict in Bolivia’s Shocking Case of the Mennonite Rapes

For many people, Women Talking will be their first introduction to the Mennonite religion, and it’s important to know that the Manitoba colony is one interpretation of the Mennonite religion, and not representative of how all Mennonites live and practice. Around the same time our book club read Women Talking, we also watched the Netflix series Unorthodox, which describes a woman’s journey to separate from a strict Satmar Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY. Coming from a partly Jewish background, I felt acutely how an ultra-conservative version of your religion can feel so distant from your own experience. 


The Male Perspective in Women Talking

At a crucial point in story, the women are discussing whether preteen boys should be treated as men or as children—the real question being, are they a danger to the women and children of Molotschna?

When August answers—that we all have the capacity to do harm—he goes on to describe a positive and nurturing way to mold a young mind that reveals just how harmful the colony’s current culture may be.

Every one of us, male or female, poses a potential threat. […] I believe that with direction, firm love and patience these boys, aged thirteen and fourteen, are capable of relearning their roles as males in the Molotschna Colony. I believe in what the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought were the cardinal rules of early education: “To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power.” In his Lecture on Education, Coleridge concluded with the words: “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.”

The male perspective that August provides is vital to the story. While the psychological pain and social oppression that August experiences is very different from sexual assault, it is still incredibly damaging.


How Did We Like the Book?

Overwhelmingly Women Talking was a winner with our book club! We all appreciated how the women were described so naturally; how Toews took the time to describe physical interactions that showed the nature of their relationships. For example, when the teenage girls would swing from the rafters in boredom/anxiety, and when the daughter would ask her elderly mother to stop rubbing her eyes. And we thought August’s role was brilliant. One of our members noted how making August the narrator gave Toews the artistic room to reference literature and art of which the women of the Molotschna colony would have no knowledge. There were a couple of women in our book club who either: (1) found the back and forth debate repetitive or (2) found the subject matter too heavy (at least during quarantine).

Toews writes about women who experienced an unbelievable trauma not just personally—but as a community. Through Toews brilliant story-telling, we get to see the strength of their love, their sisterhood, their faith, and their convictions as they determine their best course of action. Just as Julia Alvarez did with In the Time of the Butterflies, when she invited us into the lives of the women living through the revolution in the Dominican Republic, Toews makes the story entirely personal.

It’s easy to think of these people in these closed colonies, in these remote places, isolated, as sort of freaks, and cultists, in a way … but the reality is too, of course, that they’re human beings, and I wanted to convey that. Because I feel that as long as we think of them as freaks and outsiders, we can then very easily say, well, you know, that’s happening there, but it’s so alien, maybe it’s not really happening. And if you don’t think it’s really happening — at least not in the society you’re familiar with — it’s easy not to do anything about it, and not to even really think about it. … Like human beings everywhere, they argue, they laugh, they joke, they contradict themselves, they nurture each other, care for each other. So I enjoyed making up the voices of the women in the loft, and hopefully — the hope is that someday we’ll hear from these women directly.

Women Talking is a brilliant and compact novella, presenting several ethical and theological questions in its light page count. Because of the heavy subject matter, I would not have picked this book on my own. But I’m so glad that a member of our book club recommended it—just goes to show the power of discourse aka a good book club chat! Many minds are better than one!


Women Talking Discussion Questions

  1. Which of the options would you have taken if you were one of the women? Explain why. Consider the consequences and benefits of your choice. How would you convince the others to join you?
  2. Some readers may have trouble understanding Salome’s violence towards to attackers. Do you condone her actions? Do you understand her motivation? In what ways are the rules of Molotschna suppressing women’s choices and freedoms, including their ability to defend themselves and their children?

“Salome continues to shout: She will destroy any living thing that harms her child, she will tear it from limb to limb, she will desecrate its body and she will bury it alive. She will challenge God on the spot to strike her dead if she has sinned by protecting her child from evil, and furthermore by destroying the evil that it may not harm another. She will lie, she will hunt, she will kill and she will dance on graves and burn forever in hell before she allows another man to satisfy his violent urges with the body of her three-year-old child.”

  1. One of the arguments in favor of leaving was the protection of their souls: it would prevent them from committing violence against the offenders. In what way is their desire to avoid violence perhaps the most extreme example of their faith, in the face of their male leaders (1) choosing to protect the offenders and (2) the offenders having already committed violence against them?

“We know that we are bruised and infected and pregnant and terrified and insane and some of us are dead. We know that we must protect our children. We know that if these attacks continue our faith will be threatened because we will become angry, murderous and unforgiving. Regardless of who is guilty of them!

…And that we want and need our right to think independently to be acknowledged, she says.”

  1. When the perpetrators of the rapes return to Molotschna “the women will be given the opportunity to forgive these men, thus guaranteeing everyone’s place in heaven. If the women don’t forgive the men…the women will have to leave the colony for the outside world, of which they know nothing.” (p 5) This role of “forgiveness” is two-fold: in the first case it is a theological requirement for eternal life in heaven, and crucial tenet of the women’s faith. On the other hand, forgiveness ensures the survival of the colony as it has always been, with a rigid patriarchal structure and male control. Discuss the principle of forgiveness in Women Talking. How would you approach forgiveness in the face of such trauma? 
  2. This story is told through August Epp’s notes from the women’s meetings. Why do you think Toews chose August to be the narrator? How would the story have felt different without the male voice? How was the narrator affected by these events? 
  3. The women of Molotschna could neither read nor write; and yet they wished to have the minutes of their meetings documented. In the end, they didn’t even think to bring these minutes with them. “The words were futile, a document. Life was the only thing. Migration, movement, freedom. We want to protect our children and we want to think. We want to keep our faith. We want the world.” (p 208) Despite the women’s arguments about the precision and meaning of so many of the words that they spoke to one another, the record of their words as committed to paper by August is ultimately left behind. Why do you think this is? And why do you think they asked August to document their meeting in the first place? Without the written record, will the women be able to achieve the freedom they so desire?
  4. How would the women’s lives have changed if they could read? How does their ability to interpret the Bible for themselves change the women’s understanding of their future?

“The issue, continues Salome, pointedly ignoring Neitje, is the male interpretation of the Bible and how that is “handed down” to us.

Ona states simply: Yes, our inability to read or write puts us at a great disadvantage in any negotiation over the interpretation of the Bible.”

  1. In Women Talking, as with her other books, Miriam Toews’ Mennonite roots are a clear influence on the narrative. Discuss whether the thematic elements of the story of the women of Molotschna would be as powerful if told by a non-Mennonite.
  2. Peters, the Bishop of Molotschna, denied medical treatment to Miep after she was raped multiple times and contracted an STI because he was worried the local doctor would “gossip” about the colony. In the wake of learning this, Miep’s mother, Salome, attempted to kill the men responsible with a scythe. It was only then that Peters contacted the authorities about the rapists, as their arrest and imprisonment would protect them from the women of the colony. Discuss the emphasis on what needs to be “protected” in this case by the religious leader of the colony?
  3. Are you surprised that the women of Molotschna never appear to lose their faith in God despite what religion has cost them? The women make plans to leave the colony, but why don’t they choose to leave the Mennonite faith entirely?

“Without a homeland to return to, we return to our faith. Faith is our homeland.

  1. August’s revelation of the identity of his actual father, as well as the disclosure of where the anesthetic used to rape the women was located, suggests that sexual violence was a long-term, ongoing issue at the colony and at the highest levels of the religious hierarchy. And towards the very end of the novel, there is a sense of foreboding of whether the women can truly get away from the colony and start anew. Can they? Did the novel end hopefully or fearfully for you? 
  2. On page 114–115 the women discuss who will educate the boys and men of the colony, who will “teach them to behave like human beings.” Some of the women of Molotschna believe it is the men’s job to learn this for themselves and act accordingly, others think it is women’s responsibility to teach the boys and men the proper way in which to behave in the world. In today’s society, who bears the responsibility for teaching men, and particularly boys, how to live respectfully and equitably with girls and women? Has this changed in recent years? If it has, why and in response to what? 
    1. What are your thoughts on August’s educational philosophy? Would these “cardinal rules” lead to more empathetic and less violent boys/men?  

“I believe in what the great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought were the cardinal rules of early education: “To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power.” In his Lecture on Education, Coleridge concluded with the words: “Little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.””

  1. On page 66, Mariche says that “our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving these goals.” Mejal replies, “But not all men,” to which Ona responds: “Perhaps not men per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s heart and minds.” These ideas have considerable currency in contemporary society. How do the women of Molostchna differentiate between the men and boys they love and wish to care for—their husbands, brothers, sons—and the toxic ideas which led to both the society in which they reside, and the horrific acts committed against them? 
  2. The term “revolutionary” comes up throughout the novel. How is the process of decision-making revolutionary for the women of Molotschna? Is this a uniquely feminine type of revolution? 
  3. Women Talking is a fictionalized account of real events. What is the difference between reading this novel versus reading a news story or nonfiction book about these events? What questions does Women Talking encourage readers to ask themselves about these events and the environment in which they occur?
  4. In real life the women of the Molotschna colony did nothing and remained in the colony. In Toews fictional ending, she leaves the reader guessing the fate of the women as they set out to establish a new colony. But we do not get the chance to see if they are successful. Why do you think she did so?