By Monica Luhar, The Aerogram, March 17, 2014
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Yoni Ki Baat, a collection of provocative and witty stories performed on stage and inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.
Written and performed by South Asian women, Yoni Ki Baat explores the shared experiences of a woman’s yoni (the Hindi word for vagina) through the arts.
The performance is organized by the San Francisco-based organization South Asian Sisters, a group of activists and feminists dedicated to providing a platform for expression and discourse. The performance explores topics such as body image, sex, rape, gender identity, menstruation, masturbation, and other shunned topics affecting women from the South Asian diaspora.
Vandana Makker from South Asian Sisters spoke with The Aerogram to discuss what the 10-year anniversary means for the South Asian community and how the organization was able to use inspiration from The Vagina Monologues to mirror the experiences of South Asian women.
Q: Yoni Ki Baat has been heavily influenced by The Vagina Monologues. How did South Asian Sisters come up with the idea, and how is the performance different from or similar to The Vagina Monologues?
VM: Maulie Dass started South Asian Sisters in 2001 as a website with a list of resources for South Asian women in the U.S. By 2003, a few more of us had started meeting up and wanted to make it a more formal organization here in the Bay Area — one that “We should do The Vagina Monologues but make a desi version.”would allow Desi women the space to meet and create and discuss issues that were important to us. Three of us — Maulie, Sapna Shahani, and I — were trying to think of a splashy way to introduce ourselves to the Bay Area progressive community. And then, one day over dosas in Berkeley, Sapna just said, “We should do The Vagina Monologues but make a desi version.” And that was that.
At first we were a bit daunted by the potential costs of using Eve Ensler’s concept (we had exactly zero dollars), but then, fortuitously, the Kimaaya Theater Company in Bangalore had just put on the first production of TVM in India. They put us in touch with Eve directly, and she gave us her blessings and has been fully supportive of our project for all these years. One big difference between YKB and TVM is that TVM has one script that IS the show. Our scripts change from year to year, as we generally put out a new call for submissions each time.
Q: For those who don’t know about Yoni Ki Baat, what is it? And how does Yoni Ki Baat highlight the different slices and experiences of South Asian women through often times scintillating and unconventional skits?
VM: Yoni Ki Baat allows individuals who identify as women of South Asian ancestry the space to share their stories around issues that are often “taboo” (and therefore not discussed) in our communities. Stories around sex, body image, abuse, violence,Stories around sex, body image, abuse, violence, pleasure, hair, relationships, bodily functions, strong emotionspleasure, hair, relationships, bodily functions, strong emotions — those things we often can’t even admit to ourselves. These are the stories that we seek out and then perform on stage. Sometimes the writers perform their own pieces and sometimes we have other women perform them. In the spirit of The Vagina Monologues, a portion of the proceeds from each show are donated to organizations that support survivors of domestic violence.
Because the experiences shared are real, they end up being very eclectic, yet relatable at the same time. While you may not have had the exact same “hair removal snafu” as the woman on stage, you have undoubtedly had something similar happen, or know someone who has. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to never have been through an abusive relationship, but you can empathize with the trauma that the storyteller is sharing. The stories connect us while at the same time highlighting the fact that not all desi women are “the same.”
Q: National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month was recently observed in the month of January. Several grassroots organizations and local leaders took to the streets to protest and spread awareness about modern forms of slavery and sex trafficking. In Yorba Linda, Calif., a 17-year-old human trafficking victim was recently stabbed to death. It seems as though human trafficking is still very much present and alive in our backyards. What can South Asians and other communities do to help raise awareness about sex trafficking and other types of injustices?
VM: Maybe it’s just my perspective, but I think people really are more politically active now. It’s not a fringe element. Even within the mainstream South Asian community, people are taking a much more active and civic responsibility. It’s not just some peopleIf it’s an injustice being done, the action needs to be taken.working on it; that being said, anything that has to do with sex or a women’s issue, I feel like it is still in a lot of ways, taboo to discuss in certain parts of our community. I think just the less you talk about it — doesn’t mean it’s not happening; it actually makes it worse. I think just not being afraid to discuss issues like this within our families and communities and really speaking out no matter what the topic is. If it’s an injustice being done, the action needs to be taken. We are more politically active and aware, but some issues are not spoken of.
Q: Over the past few years, the South Asian community has launched organizations (SAHARA, Maitri, Sawera, Narika, etc) to address domestic violence and provide a space for healing and support for survivors. Have we seen progress in the South Asian community in the past few years in terms of transparency?
VM: I think there’s still — I can’t speak for other people — but I feel like there’s two things going on with specifically domestic violence in our community. 1.) There are some women — who because of language barriers or immigration status, are afraid or don’t know about the resources they have if they are in a situation of violence, so that’s just an outreach barrier, but I know those organizations really work on trying to reach out to them. 2.) There’s also an issue within some parts of our community where some people still feel like, “oh well that’s not an issue that affects us because we are more educated or we have been in the country in a while, and those sorts of things don’t happen in our family.” It has nothing to do with education level — these things still happen. People don’t expect or suspect it or believe it can be happening. Things like that further silences women who need the support.
Q: Where else has Yoni Ki Baat performed? Are you hoping to expand to other states?
YKB has been performed in a bunch of places at this point — always by women who live in that area. Some places, like the University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, and Seattle, have made it an annual event.
The list includes: University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., Clark University, Rutgers University, Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, Stanford University, and the University of Iowa. Some of these have used our scripts and some have used submissions from women in those communities.
We’ve had a few script requests from groups in South Asia (Bangladesh and Sri Lanka specifically) but a performance there has not yet happened — we would LOVE for that to become a reality!
Q: Yoni Ki Baat has addressed a breadth of issues from violence against women to body image, and so much more. Can you tell us more about the performers and stories shared by South Asian women? What do these stories tell us?
VM: One of the cool things that I found through doing this project is just the diversity of experiences that people have shared with us. Just because we come from similar backgrounds in some way, by no means makes our experiences the same. And so we’veJust because we come from similar backgrounds in some way, by no means makes our experiences the same.gotten stories and poems about domestic violence. We’ve gotten stories and poems about hair removal, we’ve gotten pieces about coming to terms with hair loss. We’ve had stories about wanting to become a parent and not being able to. We’ve had stories about giving birth and a doctor who is an obstetrician who’s on the receiving end. We’ve had such a wide range of stories that just blows my mind, that first of all, people are willing to share their most intimate stories and have those stories performed in a live audience. Over the years, we’ve gotten requests from other organizations and other parts of the country and we’ve given them our old scripts, and sometimes they use pieces we give them and seek submissions from people in their community.
Q: The show also explores gender identity. How has the LGBTQ community been represented in the South Asian community?
VM: There’s definitely a trend, internationally, of more visibility for people in the LGBTQ community, definitely we see in the U.S. a huge change in terms of acceptance and media representation. And it’s changing at such an amazing fast pace which is awesome, so visibility wise — it’s the same issue of it’s great for them, but doesn’t happen to us. Same thing with other issues.
We’re not a political organization, we’re just an art organization — we are allowing people to share their stories so same thing with Over the years, there’s been more women reaching out with their stories of gender identity or sexual identity.domestic violence issues — we present what we are given and I feel like over the years, there’s been more women reaching out with their stories of gender identity or sexual identity, and I just feel like it’s an issue of visibility and the more we can normalize this as part of the human experience, and the more stories we can share to reflect them, just providing a space.
I remember when I was a kid, I remember going to an Indian Independence Day event with my family and they were doing a parade and floats were coming by and there was Trikone, they are a South Asian LGBT organization. I just remember I was the only one clapping, I was eight years old and was so confused as to why the entire audience suddenly grew silent. I feel like that wouldn’t happen today, I feel like our community has grown more tolerant in a lot of ways.
Q: Can you share a few monologues or snippets from your Yoni Ki Baat’s upcoming performance at the Women’s Building in San Francisco on March 22 and 23?
“This is how it feels, when your tongue enters me, scarlet sacred blasphemy…”
“Looking for a bride for our well-established son, residing in the US…only contact IF prospective bride is VERY FAIR…”
“My vagina likes to be hurt. The other night in a San Francisco dungeon, in a blissful haze brought on by too many orgasms, I looked up at the woman with her fist halfway in my cunt and said dreamily, ‘Mmm, that feels so nice…!’”
“Hello ladies! I am The Moonch. Many of you take me for a ‘mooch.’ But I am no mooch ladies! I am The Moonch, with an Nnnn…’
Q: Since 2003, how much money has your organization approximately raised for domestic violence prevention organizations through Yoni Ki Baat?
VM: Since all productions of YKB across the country raise funds for DV organizations, the overall total is around $12,000. I just want to thank anyone who has seen the show or even interested in the show, or submitted to the show, performed, because it’s grown just so much since when we started. It was literally like a funny idea that we had, and it amazes me every time how much people are open to it and how much positivity there is around it and I’m just confidently surprised what it has become.
This year’s Yoni Ki Baat performance — which falls in the midst of Women’s History Month — will be held at the Women’s Building in San Francisco from March 22-23. The tenth anniversary show is a “best of” version, pulling from favorite pieces over the years to celebrate the writers. Proceeds will benefit the following South Asian domestic violence support organizations: Narika and the San Francisco Women Against Rape.
Monica Luhar is a freelance journalist, web producer and social media editor in Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter: @monicaluhar