I’ve been anticipating Miriam Toews’s Women Talking for months, and in the wake of 1000+ pages of George R. R. Martin‘s writing I was in desperate need of some feminism. Women Talking, along with Mary Beard’s Women & Power (which I’ll talk about more in my month wrap-up) gave me exactly what I needed.
In the novel, a handful of women from the Mennonite colony of Molotschna gather secretly in a hay loft to discuss a response to the men that have raped them. The eight men who stand accused of making nightly visits to women of all ages in the colony- subduing them with an anesthetic spray and then raping them while they lie unconscious in their beds- are being held in the city jail, away from Molotschna. Others from the community have gone to post bail and bring them home pending trial. The women know they will be asked to forgive these men and carry on as usual; refusing forgiveness would mean- according to bishop Peters- being barred from heaven for the hatred they harbor.
“A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.”
It would be easy to make an argument that this book presents as fiction for feminism newbies. The Molotschnan women have been cut off from the rest of the world- they are even made to speak a dead language that prevents them from communicating with anyone outside of their own religion- and thus are coming to the idea of gender equality as though it’s a radical revolution. All facets of this concept are new to them, or at least new as a topic of discussion outside their own private thoughts, and thus all sides of the issue are laid out simply and in great detail. To consider disobeying the men of their community is indeed an act of rebellion. The women laugh at the prospect of asking for more rights and protections because they know these desires will be stamped down without any fair consideration. Such is life in Molotschna.
“She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.”
What keeps the story from feeling behind the times or too basic is the specific combination of rapes and religion in this limited environment. In an introductory statement, Toews mentions a real-life case of Bolivian colony women who were subjected to similar mysterious attacks as recently as 2009. Beyond the outrage of such a parallel is the necessary consideration that the men in this equation are husbands, brothers, sons, and long-time acquaintances of the women. They have been raised to value non-violence and forgiveness, to such an extent that they believe retaliating will cost them their souls. This is no straightforward discussion about taking revenge against evil men, but an exploration of the community hierarchy that birthed such a situation, without disregarding the fact that these women have been conditioned to believe that fighting the system could mean eternal damnation, a fate they actively fear.
Women Talking takes a philosophical approach to this one unique case of injustice, through which many broader statements can be more generally applied. It is at heart an examination of faith and the self- what each woman is willing to do or sacrifice for what she believes she deserves- rather than a condemnation of men or religion outright.
“Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals.
But not all men, says Mejal.
Ona clarifies: Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”
If you’re looking for plot, you won’t find it here; the title tells it true- almost the entire book consists of a handful of women talking through their options across two days of meetings. Because the women can’t write, they entrust one man with the task of keeping minutes for the meeting- he is our narrator. He goes on many tangents, makes his own assumptions, and in the end manages to skew the process of recording the minutes to seem a project entirely about himself, all of which contributes to the sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness these women must be experiencing.
The format and general lack of action happening on the page will likely alienate some readers, but I found it a beautiful, insightful look at a problematic power structure, which paired nicely with Beard’s nonfiction lectures/essays in Women & Power. I found myself outraged and emotional over many of the story’s details (there are so many infractions I haven’t mentioned in this review), and devoured both books in one sitting.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though a bit too short and beginner-friendly to pack the full 5-star punch for me, I did find this little book an absorbing change of pace. Everything about it fit so seamlessly together, and I loved the way that this piece of fiction reflects/addresses a real-life catastrophe in a way that gives voice to silenced women. I may pick up more from Toews in the future, but I was more interested in this specific concept and book than the author’s work more broadly at the moment; Women Talking was exactly what I wanted it to be, but… I’m fine with it ending here for now. Feel free to drop suggestions if you think there’s another Toews book I’m missing out on, though!
The Literary Elephant