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.