Women Talking is a marvelous movie. This is especially true if you have a love of politics and meaningful debate that I do. This movie is based on a book of the same name that is a fictionalized account of actual events at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia established in 1991. The events in the book and movie occurred from 2005 to 2009 culminating in a two day debate between these women on June 6 and 7, 2009. There are spoilers ahead but I won’t spoil the ending so you are duly warned.
The events from 2005 to 2009 consisted of a group of men in the colony drugging and raping the women of the colony. The women would wake up bruised, bloody, and sometimes pregnant. When one of the men is caught doing this and rats out the others, the local bishop turns the men over to the local police. In an effort to bail the men out of jail, the men in the community all go to town, leaving the women and children alone in the colony over those two days.
This sets the stage for the majority of the movie when the women have to decide what to do during this short span of freedom of action. They have a vote among all the women among three choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options end in a tie and so a small group of women are chosen to decide between the two options. They set up in a hay loft and proceed to discuss the options and debate the merits of each.
During this debate and discussion, we learn that the women are almost all illiterate and don’t even know where in the world that their colony is. They were also hewed in by their religious beliefs that state that disobeying the colony elders would lead to excommunication and keep them from the kingdom of heaven. In a sense they were slaves in their own community. If they were to leave the commune, they knew they’d be ill-equipped to survive in the world since they had been kept ignorant by the males.
Despite not having what is considered the conventional markers of intelligence, these women displayed deep intelligence and wisdom. In contrast to our society, where the young and beautiful are exalted, the women in the hay loft were all ages from young teens to elderly grandmothers and the views of all were considered. When so many of our societal debates are designed to distract us from addressing the wide inequality of wealth and power in our world, this earnest debate cut to the heart of these women’s reality: stay and fight versus leave.
The discussions explored the nature of power and who wields it in their society. It examined how control of information and education of young people allowed the male elders to keep the elders in power. By not teaching the women where in the world they actually existed they circumscribed their world to the colony. By not teaching the girls to read, they made them very unequal partners in their interactions with the outside world. It highlights how control of information and education is central in our world to maintaining and extending power, and our elites know this very well.
The discussions also brought to my mind the three freedoms brought up in the book, The Dawn of Everything, by anarchist thinkers David Wengrow and David Graeber:
- the freedom to move.
- the freedom to disobey.
- the freedom to create or transform social relationships.
These women were considering all three. When people have all three (and I would argue in our society we only partially have two and three), then and only then can people have a society of their choosing.
Their basic debate was about the first and third freedoms. Because the men were away, they had a small window to act on the third freedom. They were allowed to discuss and debate what they wanted for their future which was normally not allowed. And the men being gone meant that they also had a window to move. They had a chance to just get up and leave their current society and try to create anew somewhere else. If they stay, they will have to exercise the second and third freedoms. Staying will involve disobeying the elders and engaging with them about how to transform social relationships in the colony. They realize, however, that this will involve violence because they know that the men will not give up power without a fight.
Whether they stay and fight or leave is not nearly as important as the discussion and debate itself and the grappling with what it is to be free humans who live in community with each other. As they say in Dawn of Everything, humans have experimented over the millennia with a multitude of different societal arrangements and now we are stuck. We can’t leave and go off and live in the wilderness. We can always be found and disciplined if the powers that be want to. If we leave our country, then we are stateless and as the Palestinians have found, that is no place to be in a brutal, might-makes-right, nation-state system.
We also have a very limited ability to disobey. Our criminal “justice” system punishes disorder very severely. Laws must be obeyed no matter how they are created or how unjust they are. Lastly, we have very limited ability to change our social arrangements. Our system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and powerful to such an extent that only small changes on the margins are possible.
What this wonderfully acted movie leaves me with is something that I believe very deeply. It is that we all deserve an equal chance to govern and given that chance we can no matter our education level. We all live completely unique lives with our own experiences that can’t be described by someone else. We all deserve to be part of transforming our social arrangements every day in every aspect of our lives: in our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, cities, nations, and planet. This is our most basic human right and all other rights follow from this.
By Steve T.
Ed. note : See link in opening sentence for author, screenwriter, director, producer and other credits for the film.