- Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Faber, 216 pp, £12.99, August, ISBN 978 0 571 34032 3
‘Why would they need counselling if they weren’t even awake when it happened?’ asked Bishop Johan Neurdorf, the leader of the Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia. He was referring to the 130 women and girls in the colony who had been sedated with bovine anaesthetic and raped in their beds by a group of eight men. The women would wake up disoriented, bruised, bleeding, with their clothes torn and dirt and semen on the sheets. They didn’t speak about their assault to one another, but when they told their husbands and fathers, the men said the attacks were likely the work of ghosts and demons, punishing the women for their sins, or that they were lying to get attention or to cover up adultery, or that the stories were emanations of what some members of the colony called the ‘wild female imagination’. This went on for four years, from 2005 until 2009, until one day two men were caught climbing through a window into their neighbours’ house. (The men would spray anaesthetic through window screens to knock out the entire household and then sneak in.) The youngest victim was three years old; the oldest listed on the formal indictment was sixty. One woman went into premature labour after she was allegedly assaulted by her brother. An 11-year-old girl bled so much she had to go to hospital, where nurses – who spoke Spanish and not Plautdietsch, or Mennonite Low German, the only language the women of the colony know – treated her but couldn’t get across to her what had happened. Her parents didn’t explain either: they decided it would be better not to. The gap isn’t just linguistic, but cultural, or spiritual. During the trial the men, who were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison (the vet who provided the anaesthetic got 12), fell asleep, joked with the guards, made funny faces. Even if you spoke the same language, how could you possibly explain this? All the words that come to mind are insufficient – horrible, awful, tragic – or inhuman: patriarchal, systemic, fundamentalist. You might call it shocking, but people close to these communities say incest and sexual abuse are common. Why would they need counselling?
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