South Asian women talk freely about sex? You're kidding, right? This would never happen in a million years. Though outsiders perceive India to be the land of the 'Kama Sutra', those of us who grew up in South Asia and the diasporic communities know better: Actual conversations about sexuality - especially female sexuality - are minimal and take place most often in the form of rumours or whispers, and in discreet corners.
Suffice it to say this is troubling. Humans are sexual, women are sexual, and - gasp! - South Asian women are sexual. Silencing the issue does not make it go away. How many of us have dealt with unwanted glances and touches in a crowded 'bazaar' (market)?
Sexuality can be funny. It can be painful. It can be joyous, confusing, disturbing, amazing, political, powerful, demeaning, transforming, kinky, and glorious. But unless people are given the opportunity to share their stories, it can only be secret. So, in 2002, a few of us living in California's Bay Area decided to do something about it.
As members of South Asian Sisters, a collective aimed at empowering women of South Asian descent, we were eager to take on a project that would allow women in our community to participate in something bold. We had all seen Eve Ensler's groundbreaking show 'The Vagina Monologues', and were especially inspired by the first-ever Indian performance of the show in Bangalore, organised by the Kimaaya Theatre Company.
"I remember four friends sitting at a cafe where we often had meetings of our group, South Asian Sisters. Then someone mentioned that lawyers had protested against [the Bangalore show]. It occurred to me that that wouldn't happen in the U.S. if we organised something similar, and it would serve as a nice public event for our newly formed women's collective," recalls Sapna Shahani, a former board member who grew up in Mumbai.
So we (the South Asian Sisters) decided to put our own spin on the concept, and, with Ensler's blessing, 'Yoni ki Baat' (YKB) was born. "There is an urgent need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed," says Roksana Badruddoja, YKB contributor and Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at California State University, Fresno. "YKB illuminates the process of complex identity work from the voices of desi women - a missing category. [The show] successfully challenges how the identities and experiences of the desi women are imagined in the mass media and in public discourse."
In Sanskrit, the word 'yoni' loosely translates as womb, or vagina. Though the term is not commonly used in vernacular South Asian culture or language, we wanted to use a title that conveyed both a sense of respect and cultural specificity - not to mention a sense of humour.
In early 2003 we sent out a call for submissions that included questions like, "What Bollywood song would your yoni sing?" and "What is your yoni's matrimonial bio-data?" We didn't know if anyone would respond, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Turns out, many of the women in our community had stories to tell and just needed a forum to do so.
We received an outpouring of amazing submissions. Some of the topics in our first show, which premiered on the UC Berkeley campus in July of 2003, included abuse, menstruation, masturbation, orgasms, marriage, religious faith, and political protest.
"Seeing my words come alive on the stage felt like my story was now being heard for the first time far beyond my own circle of friends. Equally importantly, this story was being told alongside so many others," shares Sunu Chandy, a contributing writer.
Women and men filled the 500-seat auditorium for our first show, and were extremely supportive of the performers baring their souls on stage. "I thought it was overwhelming," recalls Maulie Dass, South Asian Sisters founder. "I have never, ever been in a more supportive environment on that grand a scale in my entire life."
Writer and performer Sharmistha Majumdar adds, "One of the best parts of my evening was when male audience members independently told me that they felt extremely empowered themselves, for just being in the same room with a bunch of strong women."
The 2003 show was followed by Bay Area performances in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009, with a 2011 show in the works. The show also made waves outside the Bay Area - women began contacting us to find out how they could bring performances to their communities. Beginning in 2006, 'YKB' was performed by students and community members at the University of Michigan. The show has also been performed at Rutgers University, The University of Wisconsin, The University of California at Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., with an upcoming production in New York City. In many of these communities, 'YKB' has become an annual production.
Kripa Patwardhan, who will perform in the Washington, D.C. show later this year, feels that "South Asian women have a lot to say on everything from sex to family to body image to abuse. We just want our voices to be heard, as women, as South Asians."
Notes Patwardhan, "'The Vagina Monologues' shattered the taboos on female sexuality. The one limit to it, however, was that the show was largely centred on the Anglo-American experience. 'YKB' successfully brought women of colour - at least South Asian women of colour - to the forefront."
As with 'The Vagina Monologues', 'YKB' aims to raise awareness about domestic violence which, in many South Asian communities, is even more hushed-up than sexuality. To that end, a portion of the proceeds from each performance is donated to an organisation working to support survivors of domestic violence in our communities. To date, over $11,500 has been donated to organizations including Narika, Maitri, Apna Ghar, Sakhi, Awaz, the Asian Women's Shelter, Chaya, and the South Asian Network.
Additionally, the show has helped women find solidarity - including those who may have felt excluded from the South Asian community in the past. Angeli Bhatt, assistant director of this year's Seattle performance, says, "Watching YKB in Seattle in 2009 was the first time in my life that I felt like I could choose how I wanted to interact with my identity as a desi person. I carried a lot of baggage from my grandmother feeling like I wasn't 'Indian' enough. I have felt plagued by the oppressive nature of what I felt. Watching YKB has led me to question my sense of agency in identity."
Though the rehearsal process can often be intense, many find that it plays a big part in making 'YKB' meaningful for them. "It's about the process more than the performance," muses Trisha Barua, who performed at both the University of Michigan and Seattle. "Exploring personal experience, absorbing the experiences of others, building friendships, and being a part of something bigger than myself have been more important than the performances themselves, which are like celebrating a pinnacle of what will be a lifelong journey," she says.
"[Seven] years ago, I never would have thought it was possible for so many desi women to be willing to talk about their yonis, or for the community to have any response other than horror," says Leena Kamat, who has participated in every Bay Area performance since the show's beginning in 2003. Today, the movement continues on a national scale, and we hope that it encourages more women in other parts of the country and the world to speak out and break the silence by reclaiming what is rightfully ours.
By arrangement with WFS