By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Before the Yoni Ki Baat (YKB) women discussed their vaginas, they sat around nervously at their first YKB workshop to answer the question, “Where are you from?” The stories of these women that come from this writing workshop would become the script for the 2012 Yoni Ki Baat performance. Yoni Ki Baat translates from Hindi as ‘Talk of the Vagina’ and is also referred to as the South Asian Vagina Monologues. In previous years, the show featured predominantly Indian women, but this year, the “Where are you from?” question carries a greater importance, as the women in this year’s program come from Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Seattle’s first Yoni Ki Baat performance in 2005 was a single piece, which Farah Nousheen borrowed from San Francisco-based group the Yoni Ki Baat Sisters, and presented between a few other stories. The piece was a spontaneous addition, and the audience was not prepared for provocative terms like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ being used on stage. Nousheen and co-founder Rita Meher received angry e-mails from audience members. The situation soon blew over, but Nousheen and Meher were intrigued.
“We thought, ‘Wow, this really got our community riled up and talking about this for months. Why don’t we just do a whole show around it?’ ” said Meher.
Nousheen led the first full Yoni Ki Baat in 2007. In the last three or four years, the show has used original scripts every year created from the YKB workshop, where women come together to discuss and write their own stories.
“When we first come in, it’s very difficult to trust each other and to let down our defenses,” said this year’s director Rituja Indapure.
“We find some things that are common between us. Just the fact that we’re verbalizing certain things, even if the other person doesn’t come back and say, ‘Yes, me too,’ but just that they know that somebody else has been there as well, I think it gives them that anchor to latch on, and make them feel that it’s okay to [be a] part of this group.”
Through these workshops, women recount intimate stories of relationships, loss, rape, molestation, abuse, and mental illness. In 2009, Yoni Ki Baat participant Meena Rishi shared her struggle with the gender discrimination that she was facing at work. Though it seemed that her script would eventually evolve from this experience, participating in the workshop changed things for her.
“I shared my story so many times that I got my own closure. Around that time, something else was going through my mind. While I was struggling with my workplace situation, the script was flowing really well for another very funny piece that I had [in mind,]” said Rishi.
“That space, that workshop was so important to me, it gave me closure. The first story, I was able to put a lid on it, and I could take [on] the second story.”
When participant Shraddha Riman started at the workshop, she knew she wanted to talk about her divorce and her abortion, but her feelings behind the subjects were so intense that her first draft script did not even include those words.
“A lot of societal morays make women question whether they’re doing the right thing all the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with being South Asian. Most women are raised in an environment where you’re supposed to do things right, you’re not supposed to talk loudly, you’re not supposed to have certain feelings, and you have to be happy all the time,” said Rishi.
“My story was about getting abused by a close relative when growing up,” said Indapure of her previous participation in YKB. “I hadn’t shared it with my parents or my husband. I hadn’t shared it with my children. But I felt very safe to share it with this group.”
“Just realizing that there are other strong women around [us], who will not call [us] names for having an abortion, who will not discard [us if we’ve] been molested — because that’s what our expectation is in the gender community, that we be shunned — [we] see that they are going to support [us] for what happened to [us]. I think that gives [us] the courage to tell the story.”
For 12 years, Smita Soans was the anchor for her family and her son, who was born with health problems.
“I never realized it, but for 12 years, I had been this strong mother. Even as I wrote it out, it wasn’t until I actually stood up and read it in front of everybody … I couldn’t talk. I started crying and I couldn’t stop crying. That was the first time that I admitted to myself that this had affected me,” said Soans.
On a Sunday afternoon, the cast members gather at the Seattle Asian Art Museum auditorium for rehearsal. Their conversations transition quickly from the somber monologues delivered on stage to talking about local restaurants, or their husbands. Though these women have grown acquainted with sharing their often painful experiences with each other, the uncertainly of sharing them before an audience lies ahead.
“I feel like I had a lot of friends, where it’s because of this judgment, that I could never pick up the phone and tell them what I’m going through. But a couple of things happened to me during this process, and for me, the first people I wanted to call were the women sitting right here.
That has never happened for me in my life,” said YKB participant Jaya Ramesh.
“There’s so much we don’t know about people, and we tend to judge them. I think it’s women who face this. That’s why we’re so pressured to be perfect. … We try too hard to be the perfect mother, the perfect worker, the perfect everything,” said Rishi.
“And hot in bed,” added Ramesh.
“That’s true, and hot in bed, and not smelling like curry when you come home!” said Rishi.
When the Yoni Ki Baat women approach the stage, they graduate from sharing their stories with each other to an acceptance that comes with releasing their stories to an unknowing public, regardless of who might be out there.
“Because I teach, I had this epiphany where I was like, ‘What if my students were in the audience?’ and it was something I had to reconcile for myself. With [talking about] depression, people will be like, ‘OK,’ but to label it as bipolar illness, it just felt like a huge stigma. … I just thought, well, if people were to lose respect for me because of that, then well … ,” said Ramesh.
She shrugs and leaves her thought unfinished.
Even as the show has grown more popular, the question that never fails to arise from certain audience members is, “Why do you have to use the word ‘yoni’? Why use the word vagina?”
For many conservative audience members, there is kind of a taboo around the show, and watching a show with the word ‘yoni’ or ‘vagina’ in it.
“I was with some of my friends. We were talking in a group, and I mentioned [the show]. No one really said anything even though I knew a few of the people there know [about it]. Then, some people came up quietly later [and whispered], ‘Oh, I bought tickets for Sunday.’ And I was like, ‘You couldn’t say that in front of everybody?’ ” said Yoni Ki Baat participant Nimisha Gosh Roy.
“On the Eastside, people are defining themselves as secretly in opposition to or in solidarity with YKB,” said Rishi.
Rishi noted changes over the years in her community, as some often conservative members of her community, even those opposed to the show, are discussing it amongst one another.
“The important thing is that it’s generating talk. Maybe it’s negative. I’m not trying to defend [YKB] because it’s not being attacked; it’s being questioned. Questioning is good,” said Rishi.
“I see women on the Eastside who are mothers and pillars of society, who want to be a part of the process, either positively or even negatively, but the idea is that they’re still intrigued by it. That’s the transformative power that YKB has.”
Yoni Ki Baat is produced by South Asian art and film organization Tasveer, and it will play at the Seattle Asian Art Museum from Friday, April 20, to Sunday, April 22. Fifteen percent of the total revenue will be donated to API Chaya. (end)
For more information, visit aaina.tasveer.org.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.