South Asian take on Vagina Monologues challenges sexual taboos

Protestor in Delhi

In a year marked by a political “War on Women” and a spate of sexual violence in India, it’s time for an open dialogue that challenges cultural taboos about sex.

I was traveling in India this last December, when the infamous Delhi gang rape happened. Meanwhile, back home in the US, the lead-up to the elections in November were marked by debates on “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape.

As the daughter of immigrant parents from India, I’m no stranger to the culture that both eroticizes women in religious mythology and emphasizes abstinence and “purity” among women. Sexual discussions are as taboo as being sexually active before marriage, and a shocking number of women in my community have experienced rape and sexual violence and kept silent due to this culture of censorship and fear of repercussions

But I am also immersed in a culture here in the US where women are hyper-sexualized in the media and yet there continue to be hypocritical standards around sexual purity.

That’s why Yoni Ki Baat—the South Asian version of The Vagina Monologues—is more important than ever before.

The show is put together each year by South Asian women in Seattle (and around the country) and raises funds for API Chaya while creating a space for open conversations about previously taboo topics.

Performers at the 2011 Seattle Yoni Ki Baat. (Photo by Siddhartha Saha)

Performers at the 2011 Seattle Yoni Ki Baat. (Photo by Siddhartha Saha)

My own journey with Yoni Ki Baat started some years ago as an audience member. When I found myself in a personal crisis, I turned to Yoni Ki Baat as an outlet. I dove in to participate anticipating that I would write a script, perform it, and move on with my life. My intent was merely to distract myself from other aspects of my life at the time.

What I found instead was a community of women embarking on the journey of uncovering and writing their personal stories of sexuality. We spent every Sunday together for months and in writing our own stories we also created a safe space to discuss taboo issues. Rape, incest, masturbation, virginity, orgasms, exoticization of Desi women, hair removal issues, breasts—nothing was off limits.

Through Yoni Ki Baat we are beginning to change the South Asian cultural norms of sexual topics being taboo, even if only on a small level.

Here we have women of all ages, some immigrants, some born and brought up here, discussing sex frankly and openly. To counter something as terrible as rape, it is simply not enough to protest and call for justice. We must also find ways to shine light where there is darkness; we must celebrate the joys that women experience even as we work to eradicate the terrors.

But only talking about the tragedies serves to further emphasize a narrative in which sex is bad, dangerous and a problem. In Yoni Ki Baat, we learned to let down our guard and our judgments about both the tragic stories, and the stories of celebration and joy of sex.

Performers at the 2011 Seattle Yoni Ki Baat. (Photo by Siddhartha Saha)

Performers at the 2011 Seattle Yoni Ki Baat. (Photo by Siddhartha Saha)

In the process of sharing our stories in the performance, we also gave our community the opportunity to let go of judgment and become more open to these conversations.

“I think we’ve discussed just about everything under the sun. It’s interesting to see how women will open up in the right environment,” writes Ashika Chand, a performer in this year’s production. “Recent events forced us to talk about rape and how it is portrayed in society…It has been wonderful to have this safe space to discuss anything.”

It is in the spaces of shows like Yoni Ki Baat that I draw hope for a future in which young women and men are able to grow up with a healthy respect and attitude about sex and their sexuality.

Check out the 2013 Yoni Ki Baat at the Seattle Asian Art Museum this Friday-Sunday. Tickets available here.

Sudha Nandagopal is a native of Washington with roots in South India. She is an activist who believes we can change the world through the stories we tell and loves connecting people, issues, and ideas together to create new opportunities. Sudha enjoys exploring the world and Seattle and shares her insights and observations through essays, poetry, and photography.

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