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Thu April 24, 2014
'Vagina Monologues' Inspires South Asian Women In Seattle To Perform Their Own
In 1996, playwright Eve Ensler reclaimed a word that had mostly been relegated to medical textbooks and grade-school jokes. In her piece, “The Vagina Monologues,” she adapted interviews with women about their sexuality and turned them into performance art. The play has inspired women around the world to talk more openly about their bodies.
Here in Seattle, it inspired some South Asian women to reclaim the word “yoni.” That’s the Hindi word for vagina.
Instead of performing Ensler’s piece, these women write and perform their own stories. And there’s much to explore. They come from a society that’s grabbed unwelcome headlines in recent years for brutal violence against women. Even here in Seattle, South Asian women say they battle repressive attitudes within the expatriate community.
That’s motivated them to turn their struggles into art. Every Sunday for months, a group of about a dozen women has been meeting in a big, brightly lit room at the Seattle Asian Art Museum to work on their pieces.
'Her Face Is Swollen From Gaining Weight'
On a recent day, they sat expectantly as Ashika Chand began to read hers. It’s focused on her body, something she describes with cold dispassion.
“She has no idea how to do her hair. Her face is swollen from gaining weight,” Chand read. “When she smiles, her eyes are consumed by her chipmunk cheeks. Her breasts are comically huge and disproportionate to her tiny frame.”
Her monologue dances back and forth between the reality of her self-criticism and the place her mind wanders to when she’s daydreaming.
“My chocolate skin catches his eye, my long hair barely brushes the top of my round ass,” she said. “Even though I’m shorter than most women, he can tell [from] my curves, that I’m all woman.”
When she was finished, the women held up cards with little hearts on them to show they wanted to share feedback. They delivered it in a gentle, but constructive way.
“At the end, after every quote from your mom, if you could just pause a little bit longer, because each one of those lines is so powerful,” said one woman in the group.
Things 'Good Indian Girls' Don't Do
Chand, whose parents come from Fiji but are ethnically Indian, grew up in Lynnwood. She says her mom was very strict and would tell her, “No, good Indian girls don’t do that.” According to her mom, good Indian girls don’t walk down the street alone to visit their friends. And they don’t talk about sex.
It can make you scratch your head when you think about the contradictions in Indian society. The land of the Kama Sutra, that ancient, adventurous sex manual, is also a land of misogyny and sexual violence.
“Yeah, if you’re overly sexual, you’re considered promiscuous, or unclean,” Chand said. “We have the Kama Sutra, but you’re not allowed to explore your sexuality.”
But ever since this performance started in 2006, South Asian women in Seattle have had a chance to speak their mind and puncture those taboos. It stirred up a hornet’s nest in the beginning, and even threats of lawsuits.
'Yoni Ki Baat', 'Talks Of The Vagina'
Meenakshi Rishi, an associate professor of economics at Seattle University, has performed in and directed the show. It’s called "Yoni Ki Baat," which loosely translates to “Talks of the Vagina.”
“Some people thought it was a bit risqué and that women had no business discussing anything to do with the vagina,” Rishi said. “Even the word 'vagina,' and 'yoni' stirs up controversy. So every year the show’s been performed, there’s usually a question that says, 'Why do you use the word yoni?”'
But Rishi says giving the show that name allows women to talk frankly about things that are often in the shadows or that they feel ashamed about. Rishi’s friend Rituja Indapure says she was blown away watching the show five years ago.
“It was funny, as soon as the show ended, my husband looked at me and said, 'So you’re doing this next year, right?’” she said.
The husband was right; she did have a story inside that she wanted to tell. It was something she had never told to her parents, relatives, kids or even her husband.
The thing she wanted to talk about was the trauma of having been molested when she was growing up in India. But it was hard to imagine performing such a personal thing in front of an audience. At first she thought she’d write a script and contribute it, but not get up on stage.
“Because I think there’s that fear of being ostracized, of being kept out of the community, of people talking behind your back,” Indapure said.
Little by little, the director persuaded her and she found herself on stage. To her surprise and relief, the people she had worried wouldn’t be her friends anymore stuck by her and she even gained a new circle of friends.
In the workshop, the women fine-tune their stories, which range in tone from heart-wrenching to funny. Meenakshi Rishi says she likes to bring humor into the show.
“Mine was a science fiction-based story. I was into Battlestar Galactica a lot at that time,” Rishi said. “So I kind of imagined my vagina on an intergalactic journey.”
For example, she denies a certain undesirable guy the access codes necessary to board her “starship.” But it’s not all just laughs. She uses her monologue to broach some tougher things, such as the pain of miscarriage.
Rishi says being around the women from "Yoni Ki Baat" has also helped her own teenaged daughter come out of her shell.
“We did notice a change in her personality, that she opened up, she talked a little more to them,” Rishi said. “So I think there’s been what economists call positive externalities. The spillover effects have been so great on my family.”
The women will perform their monologues this weekend at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and any South Asian woman who wants to take part next year is welcome to do so.