Three years after its first tentative foray into the flourishing progressive scene in the Bay Area, ‘Yoni Ki Baat’ -- a play in which Desi women publicly recount their feelings about their private parts – is once again being organized and produced by the California-based South Asian Sisters collective.
“Although an original production of The South Asian Sisters, ‘YKB’ has been inspired by Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina Monologues’ - we took the underlying messages of that show: women’s rights, female sexuality, voicing the taboo in a quest to end domestic violence, and made it personal to our South Asian community,” the organizers say.
The Vagina Monologues was created in 1996 from over 200 intimate conversations that award-winning playwright Eve Ensler had with women. These exchanges were funny, poignant, unusual and sometimes tragic. Women talked about their relationships, their sexual experiences and said things they never dreamed of revealing, even to their closest friends. Eventually it became the catalyst for a groundbreaking new feminist movement.
Ensler herself has claimed that she first glimpsed the spirit of self-knowledge and freedom when she lived in India for a couple of years after college. “In Hindu temples and shrines I saw the lingam, an abstract male genital symbol, but I also saw the yoni, a female genital symbol, for the first time: a flowerlike shape, triangle, or double-pointed oval. I was told that thousands of years ago, this symbol had been worshiped as more powerful than its male counterpart, a belief that carried over into Tantrism, whose central tenet is man's inability to reach spiritual fulfillment except through sexual and emotional union with woman's superior spiritual energy.”
The organizers of Yoni Ki Baat (YKB) say they are geared to resist all forms of oppression through art, dialogue, conscious alliances, and grassroots political action. “We are dedicated to organizing “Yoni ki Baat,” an annual performance that encourages women to speak out against violence and end the stigma around our bodies and our sexualities,” declares their website.
Who are the people behind South Asian Sisters? There's Maulie Dass, a Desi engineer in the South Bay. Then there is Vandana Makker, a high school English teacher, residing in San Francisco. Others include Anjali Verma, Anjli Gupta, and Leena Kamat.
In its new avatar, YKB has a completely original script with monologues written to highlight the experiences of Desi women in the contemporary U.S. Over the last few years, the theater piece has been widely performed in university and community settings, with various groups of South Asian women adding their own experiences to the theatrical mix.
After making waves on campuses such as Stanford, Rutgers, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, and University of Michigan, the strongly feminist series of theatrical vignettes on the theme of contemporary women’s gender and social oppression held a sold out performance December 2nd 2006 in San Francisco.
Earlier, in October 2006, the South Asian Women’s Collective of Rutgers University presented a spirited version of YKB with Andolan, a New York-based group that fights for the rights and welfare of exploited South Asian workers, making a significant contribution to the performance.
Some of the experiences highlighted in YKB — a student angry at her boyfriend for dating a “white girl” and “betraying” his people, a middle-class Pakistani schoolgirl told by her middle-class mother not to play with a sweeper’s daughter, and a college student told by her Indian father never to tell her eventual husband that she has had sex with another man (and a non-Indian at that) whom she has no intentions of marrying.
“This retelling of "The Vagina Monologues" from a South Asian-American perspective is a remarkably good show--better in my view than the original inspiration. It's hilarious, affecting, and powerful,” opines Anupam Chander, Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis.
Conceived as a theatrical performance of a cross section of the Desi woman's experience YKB strives to create a safe space for often marginalized South Asian experiences of identity along different lines of class, race, gender, nationality, religion, sexuality, immigration, and diaspora. The pieces challenge stereotypes and reconstruct the figure of a South Asian woman. The result is an eclectic confrontation of issues from identity and labor rights to sexual violence-all critically engaged in the question of what liberation means for people of South Asian descent.
Each year sees a fresh script, thanks to the submissions the South Asian Sisters get throughout the year, and when they send a formal ‘call for submissions’ out.
Writing in Samar magazine, Vandana Makker explains: “Though The Vagina Monologues has been performed around the world, including Pakistan and India, South Asian Sisters felt that putting on a production of the original show simply wasn't enough. We needed to create a space in which South Asian women could express their own views on sexuality and their bodies - topics which are traditionally kept "hush-hush" in desi culture. As with "The Vagina Monologues," "Yoni ki Baat" also aims to end the silencing so common around violence against women, especially in South Asian culture.
“Once the call for submissions was sent out over email, the entries began pouring in. Those of us who were working on the script were amazed at both the volume and the quality of the various poems, stories, and personal narratives that flooded our inbox. Clearly, desi women wanted to talk about sexuality, and the YKB call for submissions had opened the floodgates. There were pieces on abuse, masturbation, orgasm, menstruation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, incest, joy, discovery, and pleasure, to name just a few. Many pieces combined a number of these themes, and one even combined poetry with dance.”
The excitement of both the performers and the audience was palpable, says South Asian Sister Maulie Dass. "I thought it was overwhelming. It was like we all came out of the closet at the same time - the writers, performers, and the audience. We all were standing up for the yoni, whether it was just by our presence or our serious involvement. I have never, ever been in a more supportive environment on that grand of a scale in my entire life."
South Asian Sister Anjali Verma concurs. "The best part of YKB was its mission: to voice taboo subjects. [I enjoyed] being given the opportunity to express suppressed feelings and thoughts, and [meet] the fantastic group of women who came together for this great opportunity. The vibes, the comfort level, the closeness we all felt at an emotional, intellectual, and almost spiritual level was amazing. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain - a great group of friends, and an unforgettable experience overall."
The concept for Yoni Ki Baat started in February 2003 with a call for submissions for South Asian yoni stories. After receiving an outstanding number of monologues and stories, a script was born and performers were found. After just one month of rehearsals, Yoni Ki Baat exploded onto the U.C. Berkeley stage and ended with a standing ovation. The purpose was to speak out against the violence by creating a space to comfortably voice Desi women’s experience, whether they be about violence, orgasm, birth, menstruation, or countless other topics.
“The Vagina Monologues has received such positive feedback on this campus, and we hope to create the same sense of empowerment and pride in the women who see this South Asian version, particularly those who can relate specifically to cultural and gender issues that the play addresses,” the Stanford Daily quoted senior Shilpi Agarwal a member of Saheli.
Compiled from the submissions of various South Asian students and adults in the Bay Area, the version advocates sexual empowerment in the same way that the Vagina Monologues does, but “Yoni Ki Baat” also applies the concepts specifically to South Asian women. Thus, the performance addresses the cultural issues faced by many South Asian women, especially those who were raised in the United States but whose parents are immigrants. They may be conflicted about the conservative ideas of sex that are an integral part of their culture and the more expressive view that is part of American society, said Agarwal.
“It’s often hard for young South Asian women here in America to reconcile the ideas of modesty and relative conservatism that pervade the Indian culture with the fact that empowerment extends beyond just educational achievement, but also to one’s body,” Agarwal explained. “Because sex is a relatively taboo topic in many South Asian households, it’s important to remind South Asian women that they have the right to express themselves sexually and should not be ashamed of being strong women with needs and desires.”
Vandana Makker observes: 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.
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, and ethnicity.”
The pieces included in the YKB script 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, many more women came on board as performers. “It was just a really fun process with really awesome women,” says Kamat. “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.”
Recounts one of the South Asian Sisters: “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, 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.
“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. ..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 passions, 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 audience 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, recalls, “I felt vulnerable, 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 become much more than a show. It has inspired South Asian women to write and talk about their yonis. Desi organizations across North America are expressing interest in staging YKB productions of their own.
“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.”
Be that as it may, there are plenty of criticisms from both male and female viewers of the play.
While the grass-roots success of YKB has proven that women everywhere respond to the play’s message about the vilification of the female body, it seems that not everyone is convinced by its distinctively American response to the issue: a compulsion to talk about it as much and as loudly as possible.
As one Desi from the Bay Area observes: "The overall tone has a preachy, new-age Americanism that no localizing changes to the script can disguise." Another exclaimed: “YKB is the Oprah Winfrey of the pudendum."
A Stanford student newspaper editor wrote: “With males depicted as Serbian gang rapists and child molesters followed by lines such as “I’ll never need to rely on a man” the anti-male slant is undeniable. But certainly not all males are rapists. Moreover, most women do need men, just as most men do need women. I fear that the collective sense of women’s self-empowerment is coming at the cost of a greater resentment and distrust for men in general.”
Other critics observe that the constant emphasis on sexuality combined with a lack of discussion about abstinence or even contraception, make the Vagina Monologues and YKB especially offensive to most conservatives.
Women—at whom the material is principally aimed—are especially divided on the question of whether the play constitutes a brave new frontier for feminism, or merely a set of old clichés in sexy new clothing. In her criticism, Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers focused on three main criticisms of "The Vagina Monologues:" “1) It is atrociously written. 2) It is viciously anti-male; and 3) and, most importantly, it claims to empower women, when in fact it makes us seem desperate and pathetic.”
The play has also spawned its own anti-violence movement, V-Day, which began in 1998 and takes place every year on February 14th (V stands for victory, vagina, and anti-violence, in addition to valentine). On V-day, performances of the play are used as fundraisers for women’s charities around the world. According to its web site vday.org, the movement aims to connect " the rape/murders of young women factory workers in Juarez to the dowry killings in South Asia and the battering of a girlfriend in Montreal to the sadistic rape of girls and women in Bosnia and Rwanda" and thereby to " produce sweeping changes in our ability to stop the violence."
If that seems like a lot for one piece of theater to achieve, consider this: the show has come a long way from its roots. Initially, Ensler says, she got the idea for Monologues from a conversation with a friend who described feelings of shame and disgust toward her menopausal body. Realizing that many women—menopausal or not—had similar feelings about their bodies, the playwright went on to interview some two hundred women around the world, then turned some of the interviews into monologues. She first performed them as a solo show in 1997 in the basement of a café in New York’s Greenwich Village. The rest, as they say, is herstory.
More recently, what has given The Vagina Monologues its huge popular appeal is its element of audience participation. As it has traveled, so has the show evolved and become much more of a group project. These days, during one of the monologues, audiences are encouraged to reclaim a traditionally derogatory word for the female anatomy by chanting it. And before most shows, a questionnaire is distributed to women in the audience, asking questions like, " If your vagina could dress itself, what would it wear?"
And now we have the Vagina Wars: on one side, vagina enthusiasts like Russian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who believe that Ensler is a vagina virtuoso, a poet of the privates. Dapkunaite, who recently performed in a production of the show in London, told Moscow News that the show is " about our sex complexes. But this is just an angle, if you will, from which to take a panoramic view of human life."
The other side’s arguments can be summed up by a question posed by Marion McKeone of Ireland’s Sunday Tribune: "Surely much of the past 40 years was about proving to the world that there was more to women than their vaginas, that we are more than the sum of one part?"
Maximillia Muninzwa, a Catholic activist in Kenya, says she initially embraced the play’s message but then began to worry that it could have a counter-productive effect on sexually abused women. " Pray, how do you bring a sexually assaulted woman to healing memories of a very nasty experience when you parade her very intimate and already abused reproductive organs and shattered image to the public?" she wrote in Nairobi’s East African Standard. " It is like exposing her to another assault."
Germaine Greer, who performed in a production of the play in Britain’s Mercury Theater in Colchester, was unimpressed. In an article for London’s Telegraph, the author of the 1970 feminist classic The Female Eunuch launched a blistering attack on the play’s triviality. "We all agreed that our vaginas were one thing we didn’t have to worry about," she wrote. " Our kids, Afghanistan, the National Health, George W. Bush, breast cancer…we were more worried about them than we were about vaginas."
Like the Vagina Monologues, YKB too tries to purge us of whatever phobias we might have about female sex organs and sexuality. But they make the implausible or at least too emphatic identification of women with their vaginas, and claim that women make things worse for themselves by failing to recognize this fact. They argue that women should look to themselves for happiness before looking to a man, and that this requires doing things that in essence replace men. They present promiscuity in women as normal, and employ graphic language throughout to drive home that point – which after the first five minutes ceases to be shocking and became tiresome instead
The Monologues try to penetrate the mystery at the core of a woman, and in the process leave nothing to the imagination. Leaving nothing to imagination is, Ensler believes, the show's victory, although to those who think there are things best left unsaid it will seem a failure. Whichever way you look at it the show is overwhelming – and part of the reason is that it is frank beyond the point of crudity. If that fact does not put you off, the experience of seeing it could be well worth while.
Finally it is worth noting that the Vagina Monologues has been playing in India since 2003 and is produced by Poor-box productions. It has been given an Indian twist with a story about an elderly Parsi woman and a young Maharashtrian woman. It was banned in the South-Indian city of Chennai in 2004. The play may be translated into Hindi and performed in January 2007. Actresses who took part include: Dolly Thakore, Avantika Akerkar, Jayati Bhatia, Sonali Sachdev, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal. Mallika Sherawat performed at the 100th show on May 29th 2005 at 9pm. Jane Fonda and Marisa Tomei performed with the troupe around International Women's day in 2004 and toured Mumbai and Delhi.