Women Doing

Kerry Fast

The final post in our “Women Talking” series comes from Dr. Kerry Fast. She has a PhD from the Department of Religion, University of Toronto. She has published several articles about Old Colony and is currently working on a research project on Steinbach Pride.

I have been asked to write about the religious lives of Old Colony women in Bolivia.[1] But I want to do more than that. I want to rethink what religious lives are. I, therefore, focus not so much on what Old Colony women believe and the meaning of specific religious practices they engage in (e.g., kneeling in prayer) as what they do within the religious structure of their colony, which includes their beliefs. This is not to say that one or the other is more important, but by focussing on their doing, their active and integral role in shaping their world becomes evident.

I take seriously that Old Colony women know what their ideal world looks like and how best to strive for those ideals in their fragmented world. Lila Abu-Lughod calls on us in the west to let go of the “smug superiority” that imposes the priorities of western feminism on other cultures and take seriously the desires and priorities of women in those cultures—priorities about gender relations, safety, food security, oppression, families, communities, the self—that often look different than our priorities.[2] As Saba Mahmood writes, “the terms people use to organize their lives are not simply a gloss for universally shared assumptions about the world and one’s place in it, but are actually constitutive of different forms of personhood, knowledge, and experience.”[3] This is not, as Abu-Lughod insists, about “accepting the passivity implied for which anthropologists are justly famous—a relativism that says it’s their culture and it’s not my business to judge or interfere, only to try to understand….[T]he problem is it is much too late not to interfere.”[4] And “interfered” we have: journalists have investigated, missionaries have converted, development has been dispensed, movies have been made, anthropologists have studied. Because I see myself in this list, I have chosen to “interfere” (again) in the best way I know how: in what follows I present encounters I have had with Old Colony women in Bolivia (and observations I have made of those encounters) as they shape and re-shape their religious lives.

Robert Orsi describes religion as a “network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many sacred figures together. These relationships have all the complexities—all the hopes, evasions, love, fear, denial, projections, misunderstandings, and so on—of relationships between humans.”[5] For Old Colonists, in addition to their relationships with “sacred figures” such as God and Jesus and their fellow colonists, they also relate integrally to tradition—we do as we have been taught by our parents, by the Jemeent.[6] Tradition is the bedrock of how they live in their colonies; it is the rule that guides their interactions. Old Colonists’ relationship with tradition is as complex as the other relationships they are a part of. There is an abiding confidence in tradition, but there is also a continuous engagement with newness that circles back to tradition and leaves that tradition changed. There is lament that their communities have “gone to the dogs” and that the colony has forsaken tradition, but simultaneously there is a never-ending tug-of-war with the Lehrdienst[7] to bring about change. They work on their world for the betterment of themselves and their families even as they are deeply obligated to attend to the wellness of their villages and colony. Their class divisions create resentment in the midst of a radical egalitarianism. Conflicts between neighbours erupt even as they have established a web of mutual aid in the colony. They kick against the goads of a conservative Lehrdienst, and they respect it because it grounds them in tradition. It is within such a complex of relationships that I situate the following encounters.

Maria Klassen has been tasked with preparing bodies for burial, and it is a job she would rather not do. Her husband has Parkinson’s and can no longer assist her in moving the body and handling the ice. But she is also frustrated by the expectations placed on her as an Aufwauscha.[8] When Maria first moved to Bolivia from Mexico, where she had been an Aufwauscha, she told no one because in Bolivia bodies are prepared differently than they were on her colony in Mexico, and she knew she wouldn’t do it to people’s satisfaction. In confirmation of this, she had been at a funeral recently (not one where she had prepared the body) and overheard comments about how the body wasn’t dressed correctly. This nitpicking frustrates her because she doesn’t see why it matters. But word got around of her previous experience, and families needing her services began coming to her. She couldn’t refuse.

Maria takes great care in dressing the body. While white sheets are used, they are pinned and sewed to look like clothing. At one time, women were dressed in black caps but now they wear white ones, which are sown by women in the village of the grieving family. Often her husband has helped with dressing the body. When the body is ready to be placed in the coffin, people from the village gather around it and sing hymns. Attending to the body of a person who has committed suicide is particularly difficult for Maria, especially so because she believes the person is damned. And yet she was as attentive to details for a young man who had hanged himself as she was for any other body. When the young man’s mother asked her to raise the sheet to cover his throat to hide the bruises, Maria accommodated the request. Maria has washed thirty bodies and keeps a careful list of everyone she has attended to.

* * *

Susanna Hiebert has no intention of heeding the admonition of ministers she has heard in sermons. Young women like her are supposed to comb their hair over their forehead a certain way, but she wears a net. In her opinion, whenever a fashion comes along that is more comfortable than the current fashion, the ministers oppose it. Her mother Anne is not particularly concerned about her daughter’s defiance.

Every Saturday night, Susanna and her three younger sisters, her mother, and a married sister wash and braid each other’s hair. Susanna’s two youngest sisters were born in Canada during the two years the Hiebert family worked on vegetable fields in Ontario to earn money. For several years after their return to Bolivia, Anne braided the hair of her youngest two daughters in the “Canadian” way, which meant braiding the front hair but leaving it open in the back. Her daughters complained that this was too hot, and eventually, she began braiding their hair in the same way her hair and the hair of almost all women on her colony are braided.

A few villages over, Susanna’s two cousins showed me a picture of their mother taken when she was a young woman. In their eyes, she is terribly old fashioned; the pleats on her dress are too narrow and the fabric is not pretty.

* * *

Aganetha Wall had recently had surgery when I first met her. During the week I spent in her house, noon and evening meals were provided by women from the village she lived in. Someone had initiated a Satal, a bill of sorts that is sent around to each house in the village so that women can sign up to provide a meal. The Satal is then left with the family receiving the meals so that they know who to expect. This organized way of assisting villagers was initiated after one woman had received eleven meals on one day, and much of the food went to waste. Aganetha’s daughters who live with her (aged fifteen to thirty-two), received each meal with thanks, but that didn’t stop them from commenting on whether the meal met their expectations of what a meal from the household in question should consist of. The portions were generous; enough to feed the eight of us in the house and guests, who were present most evenings—a married son or daughter and their family. According to Tina, the oldest of Aganetha’s daughters at home, some households in the village are opposed to the Satal because they see it as people demanding food. They have been known to crumple the Satal, but they don’t go as far as refusing to pass it along. The collective disgust of the Wall women was evident.

During my stay with the Walls, three women came to visit Aganetha in her sick room. The women were all daughters-in-law of the former Vorsteher, and one of them was the wife of the current Vorsteher.[9] Their mother-in-law, a close relative of Aganetha’s, had been ill for quite some time, and previously Aganetha had sent around a Satal for her. The former Vorsteher had immediately put a stop to it because he didn’t want the village taking care of him and he thought it would reflect poorly on his children (read daughters-in-law) who would be seen as not providing adequate care for his wife. (Many on the colony are indebted to him.) Aganetha wanted to send another Satal around and so discussed it with her guests. They were in favour of it, which Aganetha credited to them being worn out caring for their mother-in-law. With this blessing, Tina wrote out the Satal and sent her youngest sister to deliver it to the nearest neighbours. But this time, they sent the Satal in the opposite direction down the village street so that it would reach the former Vorsteher’s house last and then he wouldn’t be able to stop it. Aganetha instructed her daughter to mention that the current Vorsteher’s wife, one of her guests, supported the Satal.

On Sunday of the week that the Walls sent around the Satal, I overhead a conversation in church between a woman of the village and her two daughters discussing what in the world they would make for the former Vorsteher’s wife.

* * *

Katherine Klassen loves to embroider, and women hire her to embroider their kerchiefs, which they wear to church and when they go out. She was working on one when I met her. It was fancier than most, with extra flowers in the corners, and worked on thinner fabric. The woman who had hired her was stolt (proud), which explained the extra details. But this embroidery request also attested to Katherine’s skill, and she knew it.

* * *

Justina Peters is getting old and her lack of mobility hampers her. The benches in church don’t have backs, and the only way she can kneel to pray is if she sits at the end of the bench where she can use the side support to maneuver her body to face the bench. Because of her age and the deference she is entitled to, she knows she should be sitting on the front bench with other women her age, but then she wouldn’t be able to kneel.

* * *

Elizabeth Enns runs a store on her yard, and once a week she and her seventeen-year-old daughter take the taxi to Santa Cruz to buy inventory. The week I accompanied them, they bought fabric, candy, socks, stockings, snaps, buttons, and zippers and sold the butter and eggs they had collected from the colony during the week—a hundred pounds of butter and twenty-five dozen eggs. Her daughter is more fluent in Spanish than Elizabeth, and she does all the bargaining. Elizabeth is concerned that when her daughter gets married, she will have to close the store because she can’t do it on her own.

To undercut her competition, Elizabeth offered to supply the fabric for a woman who embroiders kerchiefs if she would would sell her kerchiefs in Elizabeth’s store rather than in the one she is supplying now.

* * *

Edith Bueckert has a developmentally disabled pre-teen daughter. Her daughter enjoys school, where she can interact with the other children in the village. But she also easily gets bored. She wants very much to join the teenagers and young adults on the village street on Sunday afternoon; Edith is afraid of that eventuality.[10] As a matter of principal, Edith does not allow her children to join their peers on the street until they are fifteen. For now, she can mostly keep her daughter at home, but on a few occasions, she has had to send one of her sons to bring her home. Edith was not explicit about what her fear for her daughter was—and for this daughter only—but it was obvious. Her other daughters have certain protections, so the risk is manageable. They have common sense and social skills that can help them determine who is good company to keep and who is not; they will take seriously their brothers’ assessment of which boys to avoid. But Wilhelmina doesn’t have these skills, and given her disability, Edith fears she will be a target for assault.

* * *

Aganetha Wall was unable to attend church for several weeks because of her surgery. Tears welled up in her eyes when she told me how much she missed the singing.

During the two years Anne Hiebert and her family were in Ontario, she longed for the familiar lange Wiese singing in church. Now back in Bolivia, she misses the korte Wiese of the Old Colony church in Ontario.[11] Recently a group of Mennonites from Canada visited Riva Palacios, and she relished their singing.

Anne Wieler and her three daughters often sing hymns in the evening from a book of Low German translations of American gospel songs, published by evangelical Mennonite missionaries.

* * *

Jehovah’s Witnesses regularly come to Riva Palacios to proselytize. They have met with some success, but the converts are expected to move off the colony. When Witnesses arrived on the yard of Judith Harms, she was conflicted between going out to greet them as would be expected and wanting nothing to do with them. Instead, she sent two of her children, aged ten and twelve, to tell them that they had other visitors (me) and couldn’t invite them in. On a previous visit, she had told the Witnesses that the pictures in their publications scared her children, which she didn’t like.

* * *

These everyday encounters illustrate how Old Colony women shape their religious lives within the religious structure of their colony. Every time Elizabeth Ens and her daughter go to Santa Cruz to purchase inventory, they negotiate the boundary around the colony that is meant to keep them separate from the world around them. How Judith Harms interacts or doesn’t interact with Jehovah’s Witnesses brings new meaning to the metaphoric boundary that separates Old Colonists from the world around them. Whether it is the satisfaction of creating beauty that Katherine Klassen receives from embroidering a new kerchief design on a new kind of fabric, the defiance of Susanna Hiebert when she wears a net over her hair, or Elizabeth Ens’ entrepreneurial skills, they are adjusting the sense of style that exists on their colony and thereby “tampering” with the Jemeent’s expectation of women’s distinct dress. When Edith Bueckert worries about her daughter’s safety, she is adding her voice to the parental push on the colony for the Lehrdienst to allow substantive reform of teenage socializing. When Justina Peters stubbornly refuses to sit in the front bench, she is honouring her parents and foreparents who knelt in submission to God as she does, even as she resists aging. The tentacles of transnationalism are felt when Anne Hiebert braids her daughters’ hair in the “Canadian” way and when Anne Wieler sings Low German gospel songs imported by Canadian missionaries. When Aganetha Wall subtlety manipulates the demarcations of class by ensuring the former Vorsteher will receive the same kind of neighbourly care that she, a widow with little economic power receives, she is adjusting what mutual aid means for her village. When women long for hymn singing or embrace newer, evangelical hymns, they are reaffirming emotion as an integral part of their relationship with God and their community. When Maria Klassen spends hours washing, chilling, and dressing bodies to be buried, she is making it possible for families and her community to grieve even as she is reaffirming the Jemeent and tradition as the only means of salvation for the colony. In all of this, Old Colony women shape their religious lives within the web of relationships that exist in their world. Relationships with God, with their families, their neighbours, their leaders, with their tradition, with the world beyond their colony. They make and do and talk religion in a world that is ever changing, even as they are.

I wish to thank Luann Good Gingrich, York University, whose comments about this piece led to substantial improvements.

[1] For this post, I draw on two research trips I made to Bolivia and Mexico as part of SSHRC-funded research projects of Royden Loewen. Most of my accounts are of women on Riva Palacios colony. However, I also include accounts of women on Swift colony in Bolivia and Sabinal colony in Mexico. All names are pseudonyms.

[2] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Lila Abu-Lughod on Colonial Feminism and Muslim Women. REDUX #ANTHROISLAM.” Allegra Lab. October 2014. https://allegralaboratory.net/lila-abu-lughod-on-colonial-feminism-and-muslim-women/

[3] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012 [2005]), p. 16.

[4] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3, 2002: 786. Abu-Lughod’s point is part of an extensive argument about the representation of Muslim women in the west and how, ultimately, by portraying them as oppressed by militant, patriarchal Islam, the violence perpetuated against them is exacerbated, and for her, violence also includes the poverty many live in because of colonialism, western militarism, and an unjust distribution of resources. She advocates for “interfering” by working to make the world a more just place. “The reason respect for difference should not be confused for cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situation in which others in distant places have found themselves” (789).

[5] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 2.

[6] The Christian community comprising all baptized individuals of the colony.

[7] The elected ministers and Ältester (bishop) of a colony.

[8] One who washes off. A woman who prepares bodies for burial.

[9] The elected civic head of the colony, usually a prominent, wealthy businessman.

[10] On Sunday afternoons, teenagers and single young adults congregate on village streets to socialize. This is the primary way in which Old Colonists find their spouse. Not surprisingly, there is drinking and drug use, and parents worry about their children.

[11] Lange Wiese is a form of highly ornamented singing where one syllable has many notes used on many colonies in Latin America. It takes about fifteen minutes to sing three stanzas of a hymn. Korte Wiese is the typical singing done in Protestant churches in North America. Several Old Colony churches in Canada and the United States, including the Ontarian church, have adopted it to retain members even though they continue to use the same eighteenth-century Gesangbuch used on Riva Palacios, Sabinal and Swift colonies.

1 thought on “Women Doing

  1. I appreciate Kerry’s essay very much. One thing about the many exchanges that concerns me are statements that question the women’s capacity, whether in Toews’ book or Polley’s film, to think about and articulate their theologies, ideas, dilemmas, choices, based on limited schooling education. Some of these use ‘illiterate’ as a way to undermine the intelligence and thoughtfulness of conservative women who draw on many forms of ‘education’ for their ideas. Kerry’s stories illustrate this capacity in wonderful ways. In recent years I have read some amazing memoirs by women who grew up in, or remain in, conservative (some Old Colony) Mennonite communities. They are articulate and insightful. In particular I recommend: Wiebe, Esther. Displaced: A Memoir. No place: printed by the author, 2020. Esther is the youngest of 14 children and grew up in Bolivia. I also recommend Martha Hiebert, Beyond the Village Circle: Narratives by Mennonite Women in Bolivia (2017).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.