"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