"These stories are ours, too" — South Asian women's collective celebrates a decade of 'Yoni Ki Baat'

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The South Asian Sisters of Yoni Ki Baat
PHOTO BY NEHA KUMAR

Growing up in San Francisco, I was never sheltered from sexuality. Whether it was the naked runners at Bay to Breakers or the same-sex lovebirds kissing on street corners, there has always been an honest dialogue about love, sex, and gender in my hometown. But that makes it easy to take for granted.

For over a decade, the South Asian Sisters, a Bay Area arts collective, has been cultivating a community of diverse and progressive women of South Asian origin who want to talk openly about sex. While to many outsiders India is the land of Kama Sutra and tantric sex, to those who grew up in South Asian communities, the openness just isn't there. Talk of sexuality comes in the form of rumors, whispers, and shameful glances, explains Vandana Makker, a member of the South Asian Sisters.

In a grassroots effort to build a candid conversation about these taboo issues, South Asian Sisters has grown into a national movement inviting an open discussion of gender and sexuality — empowering women of South Asian descent across the country. Their efforts come to a head with the yearly rendition of Yoni Ki Baat, a live performance of Vagina Monologues-inspired sketches. The show is comprised of a dozen or so performances by South Asian Sisters, all aimed at bringing light to the silent oppression that’s been going on in South Asian culture for centuries.

This weekend's shows, on March 22 and 23, will mark Yoni Ki Baat’s 10th Anniversary with three special performances at the iconic and historic Women’s Building in the Mission. Whether painful, funny, disturbing, or powerful, each performance furthers the honesty so vital to these women. I reached out to the diverse women from the South Asian Sisters collective to better understand what this project means to them. 

SF Bay Guardian Why is Yoni Ki Baat important to you?
 

Creatrix Tiara: Born and raised in Malaysia, I found it difficult to find a community of people who were willing to talk about issues like gender, sexuality, and race openly and freely — especially as a Bangladeshi, a much-maligned racial minority in Malaysia. Joining YKB was really refreshing and helpful in finding people who could relate to feeling liminal in those areas — having to navigate cultural norms versus wider societal taboos and stereotypes, never quite fitting in one world or another. People don't tend to associate South Asians with a lot of issues around gender and sexuality. How can South Asians be kinky? Queer? Into masturbation in strange places? Unthinkable. YKB shows that hey, these stories are ours too, no matter what anyone says.

Micropixie: Growing up in London at the time that I did, and then later moving to Paris, and then back to the UK, I did not have a community of progressive, feminist, radical South Asian women around me. In fact I did not know such a type of woman even existed until I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago. It was wonderful to see my first Yoni Ki Baat 7 years ago and then later join the team of organizers. I love the stories and relate to all of them even those that do not pertain to my personal experience. But I especially love the women in the show, both the performers and the writers…talking about sex, sexuality, and actually so much more. It's a brave thing we are doing, and for some of the girls it's the first time they are on stage; personally, my own family was horrified!

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Indira Chakrabarti: The show is especially important to me since I wrote for the first show a decade ago! Then, I wrote and performed for the second one. It is so meaningful to me to be back. I fell out of touch for a variety of reasons but have always believed in the importance of providing this space for women, especially South Asian Women, to have their true voices heard.

Anjali Verma Ruvalcaba: When I first auditioned for YKB I was a 20-year-old college student at UC Berkeley with a newly shaved head. I was already facing stigma and criticisms from both family and friends for wanting to experiment and "discover myself," so to say that I was nervous going in to it is definitely putting it mildly. Once I got there I was welcomed by such open, kind, genuine, friendly, and loving faces that I knew I had found a very sacred place to call my own, finally, and I haven't looked back since as this will be my 9th year performing. YKB gave me my first and only set of older sisters to look up to, who understood me, accepted me, inspired me, and kept challenging me to strive for my goals, and whether near or far now, they have all helped mold me into the stronger more honest and more grounded version of my self that I am today, for which I'll be eternally grateful.

Amruta: There are not many spaces where we, as women, are free to speak within and from our cultural context—where we are best understood, especially if this context involves one or more terribly different cultures. Within this rich diversity, each of us represents an intersection of colors, cultures, places and languages. To have this opportunity, to be yourself amidst this diversity, and at the same time to once a year slip into another's skin and extend our empathy, is rare. YKB is an invaluable space where we have this opportunity to present, from a woman's perspective, the multiplicity of the South Asian diaspora.

Barnali Ghosh: The pieces in YKB challenged my assumptions of who South Asian women are as well as assumptions I had about myself and what I was capable of when it came to speaking about these taboo issues. I have met and become friends with so many brave women through being part of the production. Performers are both amateurs and professionals and often women for whom it is the first time doing any kind of performance. There is no director and the cast provides the feedback, support and guidance that allow all of us to find our voice. This kind of non-hierarchical process is not something most of us are used to. But if we trust in it, it works out most of the time and in the case of YKB, in mind-blowing ways.

Neha Shah: I was thrilled to discover YKB about five years ago. I was in Washington, D.C. then, brought my mom to the show where I performed someone else's piece. Her attending the show was a turning point in our evolving relationship and her realization that I am being an independent young woman. I think it broke the awkward barriers that are typical of Indian parent-child relationships where you just don't discuss dating and sex.

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SFBG What are you most excited about for the 10th anniversary performance of Yoni Ki Baat?

Creatrix Tiara: The piece I'm performing [The Word of Violence] is one of the earliest pieces in YKB's history, but the writer has never been able to see it performed live. She'll be attending this show and will see it performed for the first time. It's nerve-racking but I hope I am able to give her piece the love and justice it deserves!

Anjali Verma Ruvalcaba: I am excited to simply be celebrating this with everyone who's written, performed, and witnessed the show. There's a lot of heart, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into this year after year. It's all 110 percent volunteer-driven and based, which I can't even begin to express how thankful I am because without that drive, or passion, we cannot build the emotional space needed to support one another through this process and then convince folks of our stories, be they ours or someone else's, on stage for the world to see.

Bernali Ghosh: For me personally, I am excited about reprising a funny piece I did 2 years ago. Before I performed it for YKB I didn't know that I could do humor as a performer. Humor can be really important to healing and way to balance some of our more serious topics, so I am looking forward to sharing laughs with the audience again!

Vandana Makker: Each piece holds a special memory for me, and it's like looking through an old family photo album and reminiscing about all the things we've been through. I'm so proud of the show and what it's grown to become and can't wait to give it a proper birthday party.

Amruta: Yoni Ki Baat is the simple message emerging from this dizzying diversity. I am excited to be part of this established tradition that has repeatedly brought to the fore an array of experiences with which we can all empathize

Indira Chakrabarti: I’m anxious and nervous to perform my piece after a decade-long hiatus but am so cozy in a warm hug of support and encouragement from my sisters.

Neha Shah: This an amazing milestone for the movement. Social change via the arts is a necessary and effective way to bridge disparate ideologies—the diversity of voices that YKB has brought together is not a small feat. It reminds me of my favorite quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Yoni Ki Baat 10th anniversary shows

Sat/22, 6:30pm; Sun/23, 12:30pm (this show open to those who self-identify as female) and 5pm
$15 advance, $20 at the door
Women's Building
3543 18th St, SF
Yoni Ki Baat online

 

Comments

Thank you for being conscious about engaging all these whack ass comments from left field/not based in any shred of reality.

For the rest of you: stop hiding behind your cowardly fake names & come see the show for your fucking selves to form a verified opinion grounded in actual experience.

Posted by Anjali on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

Presumably the same cultural taboo cited here.

But there is a huge demand from all the Indian single male tech workers in the south bay, and prices are at a premium.

A business opportunity for any truly liberated south asian kinkster, surely?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 7:07 am

What is the point of this comment?

(I ask this as someone who has performed burlesque and erotic performance, is kinky, is South Asian, and is in YKB - I'm the first person quoted in the article. But there seems to be some underlying assumptions being made of sex work and kink and South Asians and sexual liberation that are making me look askance at this comment.)

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Posted by reverse phone lookup on Jul. 09, 2014 @ 3:24 am

MyRedBook. You can do a search of girls by ethnicity or keyword. You won't find many south asian girls.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking this at all. I think it's great. I'm just saying that there appear to remain some cultural barriers when a broader view of sex work is looked at.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 10:02 am

That is true, and I appreciate the clarification. I did some research on this myself a little while ago and there are a fair few cultural barriers externally and internally ("don't you have any shame" vs "you're too hairy/lumpy/brown/ugly to be naked", both of which I've gotten). There's also the fact that there are some sex workers and performers who may be South Asian in origin but don't advertise that openly, sometimes passing as some other race, due to the above mentioned constraints.

YKB isn't just about sex work though, and I'm concerned about the conflation between "they're doing a performance that talks about sexuality" and "they're performing sex work" - two very different areas, but unfortunately paired together too often especially when coming from marginalised communities. The stigma people have against sex work (which is bullshit) leads to stigmatization against efforts like YKB because it's seen as one and the same. You talk about sex? You must be selling sex. How dare you.

I'm not sure if they've ever had a piece from the POV of a sex worker? like how The Vagina Monologues has a piece about a dominatrix? YKB's also travelled beyond the Bay Area so that may have come up. That would be a great piece to have, I think.

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

black escorts advertizing themselves as "East Indian" to try and gain some extra cachet. So when you do locate an east indian escort, it often turns out that they are not really south asian at all.

To your broader point, I think the term "sex work" encompasses a lot of activities and not all of them have much in common. Erotic dancers and strippers do not perform sex but are still sex workers. Likewise for phone sex operators and even dominatrices who often draw the line at sensual touch. Or those who make or act in porn movies.

If your drive is to take the stigma out of sex work then I am not sure it supports your case if, as a "performer" you look down on prostitutes and escorts as somehow being something different.

Nobody forces you to cross any personal line but you should not feel any shame if someone categorizes your work as "sex work".

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

Oh, I think I didn't communicate clearly. I think the *stigma* against sex workers is bullshit, and I too get frustrated at burlesque and performer types who are all "BUT I'M NOT A STRIPPER/HOOKER/ETC~~~~~" because as you said, the condescension is not helpful. If it weren't for them we probably couldn't do half of what we do.

However, it's also important to note that YKB *is not* sex work in any sense of the term. That's not a judgement against sex work - it's just stating the facts of what YKB is. Our work is *not* to arouse. A number of the pieces are somewhat explicit, yes, but it's not "Let me tell you about sex so that we can all be turned on" but more "Let me tell you a true story about who I am and what I desire". (If someone does get turned on, ok, but that's not the goal.)

Or else you'd have to start calling any movie or theater piece that talks about sex, or any songs or books with lyrics about sex, to be sex work too.

There is a misconception that any artistic production that discusses sexuality must therefore be Hookers On Stage, and thus all judgements about that performance - and you can see that from the comments later on in this article. "Oh, women talking openly about things to do with the vagina? MUST BE LIVE PORN."

No, guys, that's what Cum and Glitter is for.

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

So when you put on a show that is overtly about sex you are going to get people coming along who might not have gone if it were the same people doing a similar show about some other topic.

Of course, you have to draw the line somewhere. The new ACT production of "Venus in Fur" might be seen as art with a sexual theme, rather than an overt sexual show. But even so, I'm sure some BDSM followers will go.

I'm afraid I don't know what "Cum and Glitter" is so your distinction there lost me. I accept that you guys are not hookers but, as you say, it doesn't really matter because it wouldn't matter if you were.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

Sex sells.

Doesn't mean that everything that uses sex to sell is sex work.

This show isn't even about sex exclusively - there are pieces that are sexual and many that aren't. Even the sexual ones run the gamut from "that's hot" to "that's gross".

And yes, we welcome all sorts of people to come and see it! I'm a "BDSM person" as you put it, and one of the pieces is explicitly about that. But that still doesn't make it sex work, any more than going to a supermarket as a kinky person makes that sex work.

(Cum and Glitter is a live queer porn show, a friend of mine produces it.)

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

Listening to Indian ladies talk about their hoo-hahs and no-no places is a dream come true. This city has everything!

Posted by The Cosmopolitan on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 6:43 am

Then come along, though if you're expecting all the pieces to be solely about the vagina then you'd be sorely disappointed I'm afraid.

(My piece doesn't even have the word 'vagina', but it is mostly about another taboo word.)

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 9:44 am

I've always self-identified as a Pakistani lesbian. Can I get in free?

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 6:09 am

It's a fundraiser: you can get in for free if you volunteer for event crew, and there's even a women's only matinee.

I do suspect you're trolling though.

- a queer Bangladeshi-Malaysian

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 9:43 am

I uh...have to wash my hair that night, and then look at a ton of porn. But thanks! And yoni up!

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 10:16 am

Pity you weren't at last year's show, because there were pieces on both hair and watching porn.

(I did the piece involving porn.)

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

I believe it features a lot of fruit.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 10:35 am

You know me too well. It's the fruit that does me in. Especially when it's ripe crimson plums mashed and dripping juice on the skin of two queer Bangladeshis engaged in some strange South Asian pie-eating contest. The abundance of fruit makes the inevitable scat videos that follow a natural pairing.

Posted by Chromefields on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 10:57 am

Someone needs a geography lesson.

Also I wish pies were more of a thing in South Asian cuisine. Pies are awesome.

Posted by Creatrix Tiara on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

.Obviously.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 21, 2014 @ 11:11 am

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