Twat Talk – Yoni Ki Baat (YKB)

By on March 14th, 2007 50 Comments

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Vagina Talk.

Yeah, you heard me. I said it. The ‘V’ word. Go ahead, say it out loud for yourself: V-A-G-I-N-A. Now, how many of you said it really quietly? How many minimized your screens or did a quick 360 to double check if a co-worker, classmate, or your relative (eek!) walked by…?! And why do you think that is? What is it about this word that makes it so blasphemous? So hush-hush & taboo? For those who did not flinch saying it – more power to you, but for those who cringed a little; keep squirming and reading, because its story time.

Once upon a time in the valley-licious land of Boulder, CO, Maulie Dass created a website that served as a space where current events, book reviews, rants, raves, and all things pertinent to the larger South Asian Diaspora were shared. After moving to the Bay Area, Maulie was joined by Sapna Shahani, Anjli, Vandana Makker, Anjali & Leena Kamat, and Farrah Hakimian, forming the original South Asian Sisters. At a grassroots level they met periodically and made conscious alliances with other non-profits in the area (ASATA, Trikone, Narika), and were also a part of a South Asian Progressive Conference (SAPC), where they introduced everyone else to the idea of Yoni Ki Baat (YKB), which literally translates into: talks of the vagina.

YKB’s inspiration came one bright sunny afternoon at a Berkeley South Indian eatery, where the ladies were discussing the recent V-Day performance they had seen, (and by V-Day I do not mean Cupid, edible lingerie, ‘Hallmark-holiday’-central, red roses, and cheesy poetry). I am referring to Eve Ensler’s project: The Vagina Monologues (www.vday.org) that seeks to end violence against women and girls throughout the world. Although supportive of Ensler’s movement and cause as a whole, the SA Sisters found the show lacked a certain cultural oompf that pertained more to their identities as South Asian women. Sapna piped up and declared that the SA Sisters should birth their own spin-off of the ‘Monologues, call for submissions, and produce a show that specifically dealt with our socio-cultural taboos. The other women smiled: nervously. “That’s… an..err, awesome idea!” (read: “Are you crazy?! – How on earth do you think we can pull this off?!”) Almost 5 years of ‘call for submissions’ and ‘call for performers’ later, YKB is still going strong.

Despite it being inspired by the ‘Monologues, YKB differs from the original show in that it is a cross section specifically of the Desi woman’s experience (again across religious & sexual orientation lines). By ‘Desi’ I am referring to: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Fiji, India, Myanmar, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Desi Islanders.

YKB has an original script every year, because every year there are new women ready and willing to open up their lives & experiences to share center-stage with the audience. Vandana Makker has been ring leading the show since it started at U.C. Berkeley in 2003, then at Cal & Stanford in 2004, and finally crossing the ‘Bay to San Francisco’s Canvas (Art) Gallery in 2005, until she was finally given a sabbatical for the November 2006 show at San Francisco’s Amnesia Bar, by yours truly.

The show is purely dictated by its submissions – there are no right or wrong answers. If you do not hear a voice that gives a fair representation of your own experience, write something, submit it, and chances are: it will be heard. Is there a Pulitzer Prize factor, you ask? Hardly. By no means do you have to be “an established writer”, and neither do you have to have been involved with performing beforehand — there is constant feedback during rehearsals to help everyone with the overall delivery. Keeping in mind that well-written stories are not interchangeable with performable monologues, re-writing and editing is involved as well. Finally, disclaimers are signed, a name can remain anonymous if the writer so chooses, and a performer can also be found if the writer does not feel comfortable reading a piece herself – there is no pressure, either way.
With regards to its distribution, the SA Sisters do not fly around performing the show from one campus and city to the other – that is not the purpose of the show. It is a movement, it is positively infectious, and it is meant to be shared — so they distribute previous copies of the script to interested campus groups, who pick and chose the pieces that appeal to them, in order to launch their own shows. What began with a few shows in the Bay Area at: Berkeley, Stanford, Davis, and San Francisco, then branched out to college campuses nationwide such as: Rutgers, University of Michigan, and U.C. Santa Barbara.

Now, to finally get down to the nitty-gritty of it – what do these women really have to talk about; year, after year no less?! Apparently: plenty, and then some. Think about it. The show is about, run by , performed by, and watched, for the larger part, by women, (which just goes to show that the ‘other sex’ simply needs to make more of an effort to actually show up and increase attendance). What is the one guaranteed thing that women do as effortlessly as: shopping, primping, stressing, over-thinking, and prying? Talking.

The content has ranged from heart-wrenching stories of sati (widow immolation), child molestation, rape, hyperemesis (severe form of morning sickness). To more political stories lamenting Hindu fundamentalism, Bush taking our bushes names in vain, women’s rights to: choose a partner, to get married or not, to free feminine care (and thereby eliminating its commercialization), to choose to become a mother, or not. To reclaiming words such as: fuck, cunt, punani, bitch, twat, and pussy. To more tongue-in-cheek pieces dealing with the pleasures of sex, masturbation, shedding the guilt, hypochondriac-pussy-eating-virgins, whip-lashing-corset-and-fishnet-wearing dominatrices, a super-heroin yoni parading as ‘Skunk Girl’ and finally making peace with her hair – all of this and more presented through the medium of song, dance, poetry – the spoken word.

Rewinding to last year’s performance in particular – the audience reaction from both sexes, was an overall supportive one. Indeed, as far as criticism goes (and there has been plenty of it), some people stereotype the show to be a bra-burning, male-bashing night, filled with angry, raging, roaring feminists, when YKB has repeatedly been applauded for being much more multi-faceted than that. Although on one hand, the show and movement is not exactly looking for validation, or approval for that matter, it is both the negative and positive feedback, and the constructive criticism that one gets from both women’s and men’s perspectives, that help ameliorate and augment the receptivity, solidarity, and presentation of the show.

One male audience member remarked: “Personally I think any guy who had a problem with anything that was said during the show needs to take a long hard look at himself. The ladies who performed were very honest, and any offense taken should be in reaction to their negative experiences, and used as a catalyst for change.” In fact, several men agreed on how touching, well-organized, and diverse last year’s show in particular was compared to its preceding counter-parts, and one gentleman in particular stated how the show re-sensitizes him to women’s issues, and how he felt proud to have close friends who were brave and talented in their abilities to either write a story, or present one. When asked what parting thoughts he left the show with, audience member Praveen Basaviah said, “I hope that one day there will be other South Asian collectives like YKB that I and others can be a part of, so we can work in solidarity to empower our community through arts, activism, and peership, like YKB successfully does.” And these are the types of allies this movement needs.

When it came to the female members in the audience, the adjectives that surfaced were: admirable, bold, crisp, empowering, encouraging, funny, honest, inspiring, intimate, moving, painfully raw, revolutionary, sassy, to name a few. First-time performer Minal Mehta remarks, “Art is the agency with which South Asian women can deconstruct and express the complicated nature of their multi-dimensional lives as mothers, daughter, sisters, wives, and immigrants, and the call enabled me to challenge myself and explore the themes most important to me.” Many women found the space and platform itself to be much-needed, and the simple, one-mic setup of the show to be very effective. Many remained awed by the courage the women had in exposing their experiences, and more sentiments were echoed in encore performer Roopa Singh’s feedback, “Yoni Ki Baat is a unique space and a safe one for South Asian sisters to share the wide open strength of our many stories, and for non-South Asians folks to learn about who we are – uncut and unappropriated.”

So, here we are ladies and gents. Yoni Ki Baat 101. The platform that surpasses mainstream media filtration, to voice issues that would otherwise remain in the proverbial closet, that allow us, nay, mandate us to speak up, and put an end to a deadly and repressive cycle of silence. This is the story of the South Asian Sisters, the YKB movement that is still up and running – and the rest as they say, is herstory.