home Arts & Literature, Asia, Feminism, Sex, Women Yoni is the wrong damn word: marginalization and exoticism

Yoni is the wrong damn word: marginalization and exoticism

Why, oh, why does it have to be Yoni Ki Baat? Why? I’m South Asian, right? I’m solid South Asian. So why does it make my blood boil that South Asians are doing an adaptation of the Vagina Monologues called Yoni Ki Baat?

Well, I don’t have a damn yoni, for one thing. The first time I read the word yoni, it was in a Nancy Friday book of sexual fantasies and some white chick was describing her power centre being plunged or whatever and calling it a yoni.

I do not call my c*** yoni. I’m Pakistani. We don’t do Sanskrit in Pakistan, not on purpose, anyway (I take no responsibility for accidental Sanskrit). Pakistani vernacular has many words for vagina and none of them is yoni. So running into a performance of Yoni Ki Baat by South Asians in Seattle really just fries my onions all wrong.

However, I can deal. I know that in the US South Asian communities are dominated by Indianness and this is simply a reflection of the sub-continental hegemonic power structures. I don’t like it, but I’m a lazy person and that’s not a fight I’m going to pick on a 6-month quickie in Seattle.

A little bit of investigation, however, brings me the news that, no, in fact, even in Indian contexts, using yoni for vagina is extremely problematic. It’s a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is the base for north Indian languages, including, most prominently, Hindi. Using it successfully projects, once again, north India as true India and Dravidian south India as other. As incidental. As internal or private. As “ethnic.” As not-really-there.

Well done, feminism.

A project inspired by the Vagina Monologues that wanted to “create a space in which South Asian women could express their own views on sexuality and their bodies,” managed to slice out a large chunk of “South Asian” in the process. What it left behind may have been powerful for some. But it is, to say the least, incomplete.

Way back when the first call for submissions went out for Yoni Ki Baat, I saw it and thought about contributing. But the word yoni put me off. It was so alien.

And when, a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Aaina festival and the Seattle performance of YKB, I realized what it was that had bothered me so viscerally about it.

The word yoni inherently marginalizes. It privileges one type of “South Asian” over another and instantly undermines any sense of unity that might exist in the South Asian identity. One might argue that Hindi is dominant in India, that it’s nearly identical to Urdu and that it’s occasionally intelligible by folks who speak other South Asian languages; therefore, using the Sanskrit root is only natural.

But, by that argument, “vagina” is a much better word; English is truly the hegemonic language in South Asia. “Vagina” would be much more familiar, much easier to own by multiple South Asian identities than yoni. So why use yoni?

Calling it a yoni is a South Asian American conceit. In an attempt the enter the discourse around vaginas, taboo words and the sexuality of women, YKB wants to elevate the South Asian voice, which it sees as marginalized from the discourse. But by using the Sanskrit – read, alien to America – word, YKB has exotified its own constituency. YKB is an attempt to ethnicize Eve Ensler’s project. It is an acknowledgement that white women decide what brown women will talk about and how.

A second problem stems from this acknowledgement. Eve Ensler wrote a life-altering set of monologues, after a lot of research, and that work became a global movement that, nonetheless, originated in the United States. How is it that a South Asian response to that is to mimic it, calling it yoni ki baat – “talk of the vagina” – instead of responding to it?

How did South Asians not respond to the politics of the Vagina Monologues (like the heady whiteness), to the blind spots (like that horrendous and trite monologue about Afghani women), to the Americanness? Why just mimic?

For the record, unlike the Monologues, YKB is composed by different writers and performers telling their own stories, their own truths. There is no homogeneity of style to it and, as far as I can tell, there was not meant to be. The Seattle rendition contained monologues written by the original San Francisco-based performers as well as local contributions.

But this democracy has resulted in an intensely patriarchal production. The monologues privilege marriage as the only relationship that is viable in South Asian and South Asian American communities. When it isn’t marriage, it is reproduction – abortion, surrogate motherhood – all delivered with this wry acknowledgement that, “I’m alright as I am, but it would have been so nice to be normal.”

It is so profoundly disappointing to see young South Asian women carrying that banner, in America no less! Moreover, where Eve Ensler’s project was to challenge an existing conversation about female sexuality by introducing diversity, YKB reinforces the patriarchy that exists in South Asia and South Asian American communities.

I tip my hat to Eve Ensler. I saw the Monologues performed in Lahore a few years ago and it was amazing. The audience was stunned and it began a small but significant conversation in the Pakistani media about many taboo issues, including the privilege of the upper classes of Pakistani society to be able to entertain such discourse.

The Monologues are powerful in and of themselves, despite their problematics. They are powerful for South Asians of all stripes because of the their problematics. They don’t need to be translated into desi. They need to be acknowledged and deconstructed, celebrated and torn apart, engaged, dammit!

Just saying yoni over and over again is not liberation.

23 thoughts on “Yoni is the wrong damn word: marginalization and exoticism

  1. So, the hundreds of millions of Hindi speaking people should not speak Hindi and not use their own word ‘yoni’ and speak a foreign language instead such that people in South India and a people in a foreign country (Pakistan) can understand them as well ?

    That’s the most retarded post I’ve ever seen on the internet.

  2. Actually, the author was responding to a very specific instance when it comes to using the word “yoni,” and she doesn’t claim to not “understand” it, she claims that it doesn’t speak for all of South Asia.

  3. as a north indian, i can say that no one i know uses the word “yoni” in conversation

  4. yeah, i have to say that the only people i know who say “yoni” are kind of mystical sex-positive feminist types, pretty much exclusively white and N. American. love ’em dearly, many of ’em, but it does get on my tits. “cunt” is a perfectly fine word too, yes.

    as far as that goes, it really should’ve been the Vulva Monologues, dammit.

    but then Eve Ensler kind of grates me the wrong way, too…

  5. South Indian by birth, living in the North. The only context in which I’ve ever heard the world Yoni used is in a spiritual/mystical/relgious one. The equivalent for penis would be Lingam. It’s just…no.

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  7. In all my study of south asia, I never came across yoni as anything but a hindu spiritual term. wow. How demeaning to have your body and spirit taken over and labeled that way.

  8. How about “Chut ki Baat” then Ms. Know-it-all? And before you speak for all Dravidians, and claim how “Yoni” turns us into the other, well hear it from a Dravidian. No it doesn’t… if only for the simple reason that even for North Indians it’s an archaic term, lost in oblivion. I mean your entire pseudo-academic post makes me laugh. And what exactly do you call a cunt in Pakistan, may I ask?

  9. Okay, so you are super critical race feminist desi unlike the rest of us. How does it help build sisterhood? It doesn’t. You just want to be the one who sees things differently. Kinda egotistical, huh? Don’t get me wrong. It’s important and crucial that we’re critical and call each other out on some of the very things you mentioned in this article. I agree with many of your points. However, your condescending lofty tone implies that you are somehow too good to associate with your sisters who put on this show. I think your attitude is more damaging to feminism than the word yoni.

  10. Hey there, I’m one of the founders of Yoni Ki Baat in San Francisco, and I think you raise some interesting and thought-provoking points. I’m surprised that you found the production to be patriarchal and privileging marriage as the only acceptable institution, though, as none of the performances I’ve participated or seen have been nearly as repro-normative or heteronormative as you’re implying it to be. I did not go to Seattle, but all of our scripts from San Francisco accommodate a wide spectrum of South Asian women’s voices, sampling from different parts of the diaspora, queer, straight, transgender, poly, etc. In fact, one of the (in my opinion) most brilliant pieces expressed pointed contempt for the term “yoni.” The beauty of the project is that anyone can contribute, so there is no excuse for you to claim that your perspective is marginalized! 🙂

    I understand your reservations with the name. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine a name that would make everyone happy. You could say that “yoni” is (self-)exoticization, or you could say it is a reclaiming of a term that has been put away in spiritual texts or thrown around by white hippies. Granted, it is a Hindu-centric term (all over Hinduism, not just for North Indians), and this does reflect a problematic hegemony while trying to insert a cultural component. On the other hand, it unmistakably links to that part of the world, which “vagina” does not. As for ethnicizing Eve Ensler’s project, it is more like taking the concept and making it our own. I actually have neither seen nor read The Vagina Monologues, though I would like to; but they’re not really relevant to the purpose of putting out South Asian perspectives on sexuality, as far as I’m concerned.

    But again, if you feel frustrated with the limitations of the project as you’ve seen it so far, my suggestion would be to submit your own piece, even if the topic is precisely your feeling of marginalization within purported South Asian spaces.


  11. I am one of the creators of ‘YKB’ and I agree that the word ‘yoni’ can be problematic for many of the reasons you listed.

    1) the producers of the seattle show chose which pieces they wanted to use from our original scripts, so there are many, many, many more pieces that (i feel) reflect many, many, many more viewpoints than the ones you feel portray marriage as the only viable and respectable relationship (come to sf and check out our show — i swear it’s true)


    2) since you have such strong views on the subject, PLEASE submit a piece on this topic (or any topic) to our next show. a great way to increase the level of diversity that you see as lacking is to contribute!


  12. At first I was raging and rolling my eyes while reading this article. At the end of the day people can’t make everyone happy. It’s like what’s in a name kinda thing right? Honestly at this point it’s semantics really.

    I do understand .2% of where you the writer is coming from, but unfortunately we don’t live in a world where we can cater to everyone. I am south indian, and have no ties to the name ‘yoni’ BUT what saddens me is how the you failed to mentioned the purpose of YKB, and how most of its proceeds goes towards DV (Domestic Violence) foundations that help ALL women. And that you didn’t mention the work the org. does, with things like putting on free all day women’s conferences etc, which again is open to ALL women.

    I love how at first you were going to submit, and then decided against it. Had you done a bit of research before getting up on your soapbox, you would realize that performers, and writers may have been either muslim, or pakistani, or south indian etc. for that matter. You instead chose to sit on the bench and just complain. What a waste . . .

    Is this this your version of feminism? I fail to see the liberation. If anything, you are hurting the cause. If you don’t like it why not do something pro-active about it? How about you take the time to start your own show? You might find it hard to get past finding a name for the show that is 100% applicable to the whole diaspora, or one that will give people like you “warm and fuzzies” when hearing it.

    People that don’t/won’t help, usually are the first ones to complain.

  13. Hi guys – the author is having trouble commenting on the piece from her present location, so she sent me a response she wanted to post here:

    Mabopsa: In Pakistan, “cunt” is usually “choot” (in Urdu, that is) or “phuddi” if it’s Punjabi. I don’t really know about other languages. I did not mean to speak for all Dravidians but the Dravidians I know took issue with it. It’s clear from this comment thread that many don’t, so I stand corrected on that score.

    Anjali: I’m not much into race politics, though I realize that’s not obvious from this essay. But I definitely don’t think there’s such a thing as a universal or even all-south-asia sisterhood, or that such a thing is desirable. The eradication of violence against women, power imbalances, those are goals that are good. And as Sapna says in comment 14, the organization that puts on YKB does that kind of work. I’m not against the organization or the women whose stories are in it, but I do think that the production I saw was inherently marginalizing for the reasons I’ve given in the article.

    Sapna: No, this is not my version of liberation. It’s not liberating to sit in a production that is focused so heavily on marriage, in which the only queer piece is so subtle, you almost miss that the women are lesbians and which insists the hijab is the Muslim woman’s main obstacle. I offered this critique because the show in Seattle made me angry. You’re right, however, that I didn’t do further research into what the organization does with the funds raised. Had I done that, perhaps this piece would have been somewhat different.

    Leena & v-mak: As I understand it, the Seattle performance included many stories from the Seattle community itself. The final result privileged a very hetero- and repro-normative life. I have never seen YKB in San Francisco. I ought to have made that distinction better here, rather than run my rage over what are essentially different efforts with the same name. For that I apologize.

    As for the name: I understand the difficulty involved in naming something that is supposed to be “south asian”. There is no over-arching south asian language. But I have found that South Asian groups in the US tend to underestimate the effect that Sanskritizing the group agenda can have on Muslim participants. For ever Muslim that doesn’t mind or care, there’s at least one who feels it as a tacit signal that this isn’t their place. Folks from Hindu backgrounds see it as neutral, in my experience, in the way that the American community at large would see, say, the Kama Sutra as a religion-less cultural artifact. It’s not about making everyone happy, as such, but about making room for as many as possible.

    I did actually write a monologue riffing off of this idea. It’s in Urdu though and has a few other issues.

    I would also like to apologize for not acknowledging that work that results from YKB in terms of fundraising and domestic violence activism. I should have paid better attention to that when I was writing. I’m also sure it empowers many. I wish the production I saw had been more empowering than it was.

  14. well…

    I just think the point of an effort such as “yoni ki baat” should be raising money for different campaigns, providing space for different kinds of expressions and also inspiring harsh criticism. Kyla, in my opinion is raising broad political points using “yoni” as a vantage point. One can choose to take those criticisms back rather than brand her feminism or judge her form of activism. Feminism is one of the few movements/political ideologies that takes self criticism seriously (at least where i come from). So taking that for granted, if this note is not feminist I dont know what is.

    If i were involved in organising yoni ki baat, my first reaction would also be to be pissed off with kyla. but then, i would think i’d move on to taking this very important criticism seriously and figuring out productive ways by which this could change the project/campaign in a meaningful way. this does’nt mean i demand that kyla participates in that. her criticism itself is participation.

    p.s. feminism is feminism. from an armchair or not. sisterhood (ofcourse, dont think all feminists are my ‘sisters’) prevails ONLY across differences, by fighting things out with mutual respect.

    it’s not about what we call our cunts. but just that we clal it different things. its important that we begin thinking, writing, dancing, singing, speaking about it! but that does’nt mean that we cant couple that with a process of being criticial about what we call it and why!

    feminist thinking is difficult. we cant wait for a revolution for criticism to find space. everyday is revolution. and so everyday is criticism.

    it’s pieces like this that reaffirm my belief in efforts such as yoni ki baat ironically. efforts that do some material straight forward work with women’s rights while making space for vibrant thought.

    it’s pieces like this that keeps feminism moving. we are demanding souls! we never settle! what to do! we enjoy chaos and beat ourselves up and constantly let ourselves be challenged!we can never be one homogenous gang! feminism, liberation, empowerment and other such standard terms are never seen as standard in feminism and thank god for that!

    it’s been fun reading this discussion. a good old fashioned feminist debate. phew. been a while.

    p.s. i call my cunt/yoni/choot ‘moocha’! my mother named it to tell me about sex, pain and pleasure.

  15. I appreciate your reply. I can understand where you are coming from. I am a South Indian/Chinese, Catholic. So I don’t “fit” 100% with a lot of these south asian groups. But South Asian Sisters (the org. that came up with YKB) seems to be an exception. It is a great collaborative effort. A great org. where everyone has the option to bring something to the table.

    They have a great list serv via yahoo groups that has women members from all over sharing news articles, event information, and general discussions.

    For any women who are interested you can join at: sasisters@yahoogroups.com

    or check out their Facebook group page under ‘South Asian Sisters’

  16. Kyla-

    Before I go on I would like to clarify that I don’t speak for Yoni Ki Baat, its cast, or its organizers. However, I read your post and am sorry to say, I think you before your post maybe you should have considered reaching out to the cast of Yoni Ki Baat and sticking around for the Q&A session- for either one of the 2 years it has been in place. I question if you even actually attended the show, because a Pakistani piece went first both years in a row, I know this because I was the performer.

    I have been involved in the Seattle version for 2 years and the very first year my first piece addressed how in Urdu, because I am Pakistani as well, there is no word for “down there.” Yoni is not a word that I necessarily identified with but in reality, it’s kind of sad that in Urdu, a language of formality and respect, all the words for vagina mean your a bad driver, a bad sports player, or not a real man. And in the second year I know I also discussed this in the Q&A. I to do this day, don’t really identify with “Yoni.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t support the cause and enjoy the fact that it is a safe space for women.

    Perhaps you forget the need for Yoni Ki Baat; by her own admission Eve Ensler even acknowledges that the Vagina Monologues should grow and develop organically because there was a lack of diversity and to reflect the changing voices of women’s needs in different societies.

    In terms of the Lahore version, I also researched this and perhaps you also forget that to attend a screening like this not all women necessarily have equal access. For you to even attend a forum like this in Lahore is a privilege that can be enjoyed by the relative physical safety of upper class women. Yoni Ki Baat in Seattle is a $5 donation, and if you don’t want to donate that’s ok- you can just come in for free and without any harm to your personal safety.

    I think sometimes in all of our criticisms with what is wrong in this world we are quick to judge anyone who makes any effort to rectify it. Is Yoni Ki Baat perfect? No, but if you have an issue with it why don’t you submit your piece? Dozens of folks from the community have submitted their piece to be read out loud and reflect the voice of women all over the world, you are more than welcome to submit yours. We have women comment all the time, “What’s a Yoni? What’s this Yoni business?” The performers themselves even have several conversations about what it means to them, if it’s a word they identify with, and how they identify it themselves. The performance has made an effort to time and time again say Yoni is a general term, we challenge you to find yours. We are open to feedback, but slamming the effort online without first reaching out doesn’t help further a productive dialogue.

    I am relocating this year so unfortunately I won’t be part of the show, however, the group struggles to find women who are open to performing from a variety of backgrounds. Each year we send out calls for pieces and performers, we have twice weekly performance schedules… and these are not professionally trained actors. These are women from the community. The participation from the Pakistani community is hesitant at best, maybe its because even though the event is free and safe, there is still a social stigma associated with it. However, I strongly feel that if we splashed the word Vagina all over it, even fewer Pakistani women would participate. Vagina isn’t a word that all Pakistani women identify with either, it’s in English, which perhaps you have the luxury of being comfortable with, but not necessarily all women are. Yoni may not be perfect, but I don’t limit myself to just Yoni. I also know Vagina isn’t going to work for a lot of women too because English is not the first language for many- in fact maybe you’ve forgotten is the language of those people that occupied South Asia for nearly 300 years… so I’m not a big fan of English at all times either.

    I invite you to attend to submit a piece, attend the show, and actively participate in the Q&A this year. Perhaps your full attendance may give you a different perspective on this community effort.

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  18. In bengali the other name of ‘Yoni’ is ‘Gud’. It is commonly used and well known name of ‘Vagina’ in bengali community. So, I think this name should be included in the dictionary of sex world, immediately as this name only brings an internal excitement in male’s body. In place of ‘Pussy’, ‘Bal’ can be used.

  19. There is another word for “yoni” in Sanskrit which is “Kati.” This can easily be made out from mention of Kativastra or loincloth in Hindu texts. Kati would mean loins which actually is used to refer to vagina in Sanskrit language. Not that I recommend using this even more archaic term in the present context. The talk about sexual freedom of women cannot be complete in the Indian context without a reference to the part of “Valmiki Ramayana” where Ravana comes in the disguise of a Saint to abduct Sita. The description of Sita as coming from Ravana is sexually explicit and describes in detail the pussy mound with “Kati” word which paints a different picture of what Sita might actually have preferred to wear or if she did. As it goes, she seems to have enjoyed greater choice in what to wear or whether to wear as compared to our modern feminist counterpart. So we better take some real steps for women liberation than fighting over trivial “yoni” issues to make any real progress. This needs us to redefine a lot of things in and around us which is not easy to do but not impossible in the least.

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