Ever have one of those great, heart-to-heart talks with your mom about sex? Me neither. Ever visited India without getting stared at or “accidentally” brushed up against in a crowded bazaar? Impossible, right? For most desi women, sex is something that is rarely discussed in the home, yet it’s constantly thrown in our faces the minute we leave the door. Your sexuality is supposed to be some-thing you deal with, but don’t discuss, like going to the bathroom.
This is unacceptable! Sex isn’t dirty or wrong, except when it’s unwanted. South Asian women are sexual, and we have had experiences with sex – both good and bad. So a few years ago, a group of us living in the San Francisco Bay Area decided it was time to speak up. We got together, started talking, and Yoni ki Baat was born.
Organized and produced by South Asian Sisters, a collective aimed at em-powering women of South Asian descent, Yoni ki Baat translates as “Talks of the Vagina” (yoni is the Sanskrit word for “vagina”). Many of us had seen Eve Ensler’s renowned show The Vagina Monologues and were intrigued – what if we could do the same thing, but with a script written and performed by desi women?
We knew we were treading on taboo territory, but that’s what made it so fun. “ The more we talk about our sex and sexuality and not suppress it, the more we command and demand the respect we, as women, rightfully deserve,” ex-plains organizer and performer Maulie Dass. “If we take away the ‘taboo’ part, then we can uncover, discover, and recover from the crimes that have happened against us.
In the spring of 2003, we sent out a call for submissions to desi listservs across the country, and within weeks we were inundated with poems, stories, and monologues. What struck us was not only the variety of emotions expressed in the pieces, but the sheer volume. South Asian women clearly had a lot to say on the topic of sexuality, and, as we had hoped, they were just waiting for the time and place to say it.
The show “provides a creative outlet for desi women to voice our diverse thoughts about sexuality in fun and sexy terms,” says organizer and performer Leena Kamat.
“[YKB] offers women a rare, unique space to vocalize themselves,” echoes fellow organizer and performer Ranjani Vedanthan. “Any woman of South Asian descent can submit a piece of writing or participate in any capacity in the production process, and such an all-welcoming space is very special and necessary in our cultural community, which is divided along politics, language,
The pieces included in the YKB script were written by women across the country. They were in turns hilarious, horrifying, celebratory, and painful. Sometimes all four at once. They varied in terms of format, as well – some were poems, some incorporated dance and music, and others were powerful monologues. Some dealt with abuse, others with masturbation, and still others with sexual identity.
Because not all of the writers were able to, or interested in, performing their own pieces, we were able to bring many more women on board as performers.
“It was just a really fun process with really awesome women,” says Leena.
“The process of Yoni Ki Baat is such a voyage,” adds Maulie. “I meet more people who share the same sentiments, and I learn how to connect with myself and all women around me in a deeper and more meaningful way.”
We chose to hold our first show, in July of 2003, at UC Berkeley for two reasons: first, the performance space was generously donated to us free of charge (gotta love that), and second, we hoped that word-of-mouth advertising would work well on a college campus.
Luckily, we were right – we held two performances, both of which, amazingly, sold out. Interestingly, at our first show, which was open to audience members of all genders, it was the men who were laughing and cheering the loudest. After they got over the initial shock of a bunch of strong desi women on stage sounding off about our bodies, our passions, and our fears, “people were very supportive and said they learned, laughed and really enjoyed the performance,” recounts performer Anjli.
Flash forward to the following spring. We weren’t sure if women would respond to a second call for submissions, but we thought we’d give it a try. This time, we were even more floored by the responses. They were bolder, raunchier, and sexier than before, and they truly represented the diversity of South Asian women’s sexual experiences. The first submission I read was about a desi woman’s experiences at an S&M club, and another was about one woman’s qualms about her first time performing oral sex on another woman. That’s when I knew — our first show broke boundaries, but this one was going to set them on fire.
Despite the fact that we knew this show would probably shock even those who had attended the first Yoni ki Baat, we felt confident about our second production. We were able to hold shows at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University, which gave us the opportunity to reach out to a larger audience.
Nineteen women took turns telling the audience about our desires, our pass-ions, and our anger. The result, for me, was a show that I am thrilled to be a part of, simply because it feels so good to share those feelings with the aud-ience and know that each piece resonates with each individual in a different way.
“I felt very at ease on stage because I could feel the audience members’ sup-port for my yoni,” says Leena. “I am very shy, but something about being in that space was very empowering.”
“Initially [I felt] nervous,” remembers Anjli, who performed a piece about a young girl’s first experience with masturbation. “However I was quickly empowered by the words and opportunity to share my voice with the audience.”
Maulie, who took to the stage for the first time this year, recalls, “I felt vul-nerable, naked, and scared on stage in the beginning. But once I figured out that the audience was listening so respectfully, I gained more confidence in myself to deliver my voice and share that power of expression. I lost the fear, but I still felt naked,” she says, laughing.
Like The Vagina Monologues, though on a smaller scale, Yoni ki Baat has be-come much more than a show. It has inspired South Asian women to write and talk about their yonis. Organizations across North America have expressed interest in staging YKB productions of their own. We have gotten the chance to talk about the show in print, on the radio, and on television. A documentary about the production is currently in process. Yoni ki Baat has its own Friendster profile and its very own Yoni ki Blog. We even had the opportunity to meet and share monologues with Eve Ensler. All because we decided to break the silence around South Asian women and sex.
“Two 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. Today, we enjoy the confidence that comes from having spoken up about issues that cannot remain closeted.
Aside from simply sharing our experiences, one of the biggest reasons we perform Yoni ki Baat is to raise awareness about things that are silenced in our communities, like domestic violence and abuse. For this reason, the majority of our proceeds are donated to organizations that help victims of these crimes in the South Asian community.
“That is why movements like YKB and TVM are so vital, so important,” says Maulie. “They are the vocally deconstructing instruments in the movement to end violence against women. Forever.” — Vandana Makker
If you are interested in contributing to, performing in, or finding out more about YKB, email ykb[at]sasisters.org
Photography by Shubha Ramani