I just read the introduction to Miriam Toews’ novel “Women Talking”, and I am so outraged that I need to purge some of the fury from my system. I wasn’t sure if the tale she shared was true so I looked it up and found a corroborating article in The Daily Mail which cites information from Vice.com, a news source I find to be reliable and (relatively) unbiased.
There is a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia called the Manitoba Colony, home to about 3,000 souls. In 2005 women in the colony began complaining that they were waking up feeling very groggy and disoriented with pain in their genitals. The same circumstances were reported by about one hundred women over the next four years, but nothing was done about it until 2009 when two men were accidentally caught red handed breaking into a home and confessed that they and seven others had been repeatedly drugging and raping the women (as old as 60) and girls (as young as 3) in the community.
Charges were laid by the state and the evidence against them was so plentiful and damning that the nine men, between the ages of 19 and 43, were each sentenced to twenty five years in jail, an exceptionally long term for rape. Meanwhile the vet who had supplied the anaesthetic, made from a cow tranquilizer, was sentenced to twelve years. It also came out during the trial that the men weren’t just drugging their victims, but would often sedate entire families so they could rape all of the females in the house without fear of anyone waking up.
Despite physical evidence of rape like semen and blood being found in their beds, despite waking feeling drugged with dirty fingerprints all over their bodies and rope tied around their wrists or ankles, despite young girls being taken to hospital for extreme vaginal pain and bleeding, and despite these things happening repeatedly over a four year span, the women in the colony were not believed by the men they lived with. The nine rapists, hoping to cover their guilt, suggested that the women were being beset by demons for secret sins, but what really makes me see red is how the other men in the community chose to explain what was happening.
They decided that clearly the women were lying. LYING?! This is a explanation which I hear put forth in our society as well. In fact, I’m aware of instances where this was the first thing suggested when a rape was reported. I imagine this is the only charge which, when brought to the attention of authorities, is immediately countered with the question,
“Are you sure?”
Can you imagine any other crime being met with such a response?
“Have you considered the possibility that maybe you weren’t carjacked at gunpoint?”,
“Yes I see the many cuts and bruises on your face and torso, but are you positive you were assaulted?”
How fundamentally insulting and demoralizing must it be for already traumatized women that the first reaction they get after being raped, often by someone they know or worse yet love, is at best skepticism and at worst flat out disbelief? Some people might argue that there is a grey area here because of consent – perhaps the man misunderstood or the woman’s signals were not clear. I’ll tell you one person who doesn’t see any grey, who perceives what happened in stark black and white – the victim. There is no question in her mind because she either said yes or she didn’t. Period.
The Manitoba Colony men suggested that the women fabricated these stories either because they were trying to cover up adultery, as a desperate bid for attention, or as a flight of feminine fancy. In other words, women are either so immoral, lonely or deluded that they make up stories of abuse willy-nilly. Also, how little must you respect the integrity of women in general, or in this case that of your wife and/or daughter(s) in particular, to believe that they would make up a story of this nature for any reason?
If it is undeniable that a rape has happened, the next step is to implicate that the woman somehow brought it on herself. She was wearing a provocative outfit, put herself in an unsafe situation or, in this case, was experiencing retribution for undisclosed sins. It doesn’t matter the actual reason as long as it’s understood that she asked for it and/or deserved it. Anything goes as long as you never, ever, EVER lay it at the feet of the men responsible, or at least delay that outcome as long as possible. The men in the Mennonite community were so distrustful of the women and girls in question that for four years they chose to believe theories of demonic punishment over the obvious truth. No ridiculous explanation is too far fetched when it comes to keeping women in their place. Also, the men who had been drugged by the rapists felt as woozy and disoriented the following morning as their wives did, but even that wasn’t enough to make them believe the women or even investigate further.
What’s more, this is an isolated Mennonite community without any modern conveniences including cars, so no one could arrive at night without being noticed. That means that whoever was doing this had to live in the colony. Better to dispute the word of one hundred of your female cohabitants than to accuse or even suspect one of your men. When asked why they didn’t investigate earlier, the elders said they couldn’t really do anything because they have no electricity. Their faith precludes the use of lights and video cameras, so how could they catch anyone misbehaving at night? The human species has lived in communities for thousands of years, most of those well before the invention of electricity, and they kept order at night by assigning guards to keep watch. Surly something of this nature could have occurred in the Manitoba Colony if anyone in authority had given a shit.
The article ended with some men from the colony saying that it is happening again, but the rapists are being more careful now so what can be done? The elders have refused help from other Mennonite communities and psychological care for the effected women, saying they prefer to put the whole thing behind them. Yes, this episode must have been terribly traumatic for all those men who ignored what was happening and did absolutely nothing about it even when presented with irrefutable evidence. Poor guys!
I know lots of good men, all of whom I like and several I even love, but I’m sick and tired of being told that a few bad apples don’t spoil the whole barrel. When I look at incidents like the rapes that have started up again in the Manitoba Colony, or the way the women who accused Bill Cosby and their female lawyer were vilified and doubted in the press, or how delinquent our government has been in looking for all those missing Indigenous women, quite aside from the manner in which women in many countries around the world are regularly treated – monetized, dismissed, disempowered, denied an education, brutalized, and even murdered – I can’t help but feel that there are more than a few bad “apples”. Even if I’m generous and say only 25% of the XY barrel is rotten that is still a huge number, and we all know from experience that one bad piece of fruit soon spoils the rest. I would lay odds that the best man I know has taken part in, or at least been a silent witness to, conversations where women were demeaned and/or sexualized. So I’ll state again what I have been saying for so long – things will never get better for women until men recognize that they are the problem, and further, consciously take steps to rectify their behaviour and that of their peers. Rape, harassment, abuse, objectification, and social inequality are not women’s issues, they are men’s! If these truly were female problems, we would have solved them long before now.
So I go back to Miriam Toews’ book feeling better for having vented some of the pressure created by the introduction. If it turns out that the entire book is about the “ghost rapes” in Bolivia, as they were coined in the press at the time, then I will not be finishing it. When I was a young woman I felt honour-bound to complete a book once started; like it was the least I could do given the time and effort the author had put into writing it. I no longer feel such an obligation, and if the subject matter is too distressing to be immersed in for the time it takes me to finish the book, then I simply don’t – no matter how good the writing. Now I begin…