Shaping San Francisco Donations
or make a
one time donation

Yoni Ki Baat: South Asian Queer and Feminist Organizing

Historical Essay

by Omsri Bharat, 2015

Addressing-injustice.png
To explore the intersection of South Asian feminism, sexuality, and queer history within the Bay Area, one has to examine the complexity of traditional South Asian culture, legacies of colonialism, and the effects of mass migration. This essay takes up such issues through an analysis of Yoni Ki Baat, a South Asian version of “The Vagina Monologues” founded in the San Francisco Bay Area that has created a space for South Asian women to discuss their experiences with culture, Westernization, and sexuality. Many other spaces of queer and feminist organizing within the Bay Area are mentioned, but only briefly. These other organizations deserve their own FoundSF pages and much more research.



Colonialism and Sexuality within South Asia

South Asians have, in the last few centuries, been in constant struggles to define what role westernization and globalization have had on their cultures and traditions, both in Asia and in the West. Since the 1600’s, colonial powers have sought trade and territories throughout South Asia, especially India. From the mid-19th century till 1947, the British Raj was in control of India. Among other consequences from British rule (some of these include establishment of the still-existent bureaucratic system, disestablishment of princely states, famine, etc.) the British greatly affected the concepts of sexuality, family, and gender normativity up through modern day. As Indrani Chatterjee, Professor of History at UT Austin, stated in When “Sexuality” Floated Free of Histories in South Asia, “In South Asia, British colonialism secured the legal permanence of conjugality and monogamous heteronormativity, and criminalized all other forms of attachment, embodiment, and livelihood. Above all, it was significant in objectifying gender and sexuality in dimorphic terms.” The British indeed even introduced the word “sexuality” and the bureaucratic categorization of sexuality into India. Prior to this, sexuality (it’s a pity that I can’t use a different word because in attempting to deconstruct this concept, I am using the same words that colonial powers gave to us) was much more ambiguous in South Asia, and the concept of “it-ness,” an undefined desire or gender or form was prevalent in religious texts and cults. With British rule, sexuality became much more connected to gender and body and there was an “increasing patholigization of sexual identity by genital characteristics and increasing attachment of the physical body to assessments of worth such as masculinity” (p. 950) The Western concepts of heteronormativity and sexuality reinforced patriarchal structures and traditional gender roles already present in the society. (1) Such roles and concepts of normativity already contributed to a confusion and adjustment within South Asian society, and this confusion was only magnified when the diaspora from East to West occurred more rapidly in the 20th and 21st centuries.


Diaspora To The West

As migration to the West occurred, the already jumbled concepts of sexuality and decorum got even more convoluted. This occurred as early as the 1800s, when mainly Sikh, Punjabi men moved to the Americas to become migrant farmers and workers. Even in this time period, Americans and South Asians tried to make sense of the role that South Asians would have in society, and inevitably, this included decisions about sexuality. Nayan Shah, in his work, Stranger Intimacy, discusses how the relationships (often queer) that would inevitably form among communities of migrant men would disturb heteronormative notions of sexuality and relationships. The state and legislature would condemn such relationships and often ascribe it to the “immoral” background of non-American, brown men. As Shah states, “the general process of defining marriage through racial boundaries and sexualizing and delegitimizing male-to male intimacy outside of marriage produced a subsidy for heterosexuality….policing what sex, marital ties, and progeny had the legitimacy of state recognition and the authority of market rights produced a simultaneous subsidy of whiteness with heterosexuality” (p. 125). In the West, intimacy became tied to economic success, and white heteronormative families were subsidized above all other relationships. (2)

The San Francisco Bay Area, in particular, holds a unique place within this economic diaspora. Silicon Valley has long attracted a huge number of Indians to California, creating a large population of educated Desis (a broad word meant to encompasses people of South Asia and products of the diaspora from South Asia- also equated with “brown”) who have become very Americanized in some ways and retain their South Asian identity in other ways. This population holds a certain regard because they are most often educated and bring skills of entrepreneurism and technical ingenuity to our tech-worshipping hub in the Bay Area. At the same time, while they are valued as workers, there is a persistent feeling of alienness, a clear divide between those who are brown/immigrant and the other “tech bros.” The feeling of “otherness” once again places Desis in a position of being economically beneficial to America but perhaps not quite welcomed into mainstream society.

While the clear divide between brown and white exists, we also live in an era that is obsessed with the “colors” of India, Bollywood movies, scantily-clad dance numbers. It’s a strange contradiction that Western imperialism is still a governing force, even while the West seemingly embraces certain parts of South Asian culture. In fact, it is perhaps a policing mechanism by Western imperial powers to accept the “safe” part of South Asian culture (exemplified by Bollywood) while condemning those parts that are considered unfit or insidious. Gayatri Gopinath, associate professor at NYU, discusses how “the fetishization of Bollywood as sexualized and gendered spectacle must be understood as yet another discursive mechanism that regulates and disciplines South Asian populations in the United States. The Bollywood boom, in this context, incorporates South Asians in the U.S. national imaginary as pure spectacle to be safely consumed while keeping intact their essential alienness and difference.” (3)

In addition to the “alienness and difference” that Desis encounter, the brown tech population (and the tech population in general) within the Bay Area is majority male, creating issues of sexism and divides among genders. Desi males are in a strange place – they are not at the top of the social ladder in the Bay Area, but they also bring their traditional cultural gender norms to America, which gives them a sense of entitlement and mastery. They also internalize the misogyny of the tech world. Being devalued in society makes them more likely to try to exert control in other parts of their lives, often over their partners or in their misogynistic assumptions of gender roles and identities. Therefore, brown women or Desis who don’t identify with normative gender roles are sidelined and marginalized even more.

The traditions brought from South Asia, the unique and pervasive influence of the Bay Area tech world, the exotification of Eastern culture, and the suspicion directed towards brown people after 9/11 – continue to influence concepts of South Asian sexuality in Northern California. With such an atmosphere, it is understandable that a counter culture would have formed in the Bay Area. This is especially true given the longer regional history of radical organizing. A few movements notably influential on any discussion of contemporary South Asian feminist organizing include: queer culture and activism, the feminist movement, and the rich history of brown activism in the Bay Area going as far back as the the 19th century Ghadar movement that was so prominent in Berkeley. (To learn more about these topics and much more, please go on the Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour! (4)

Gopinath discusses the importance of creating a queer diasporic lens for South Asian issues that “becomes a way to challenge nationalist ideologies by insisting on the impure, inauthentic, nonreproductive potential of the notion of diaspora. Queer diasporic cultural forms suggest alternative forms of collectivity and communal belonging that redefine “home” as national, communal, or domestic space outside a logic of blood, purity, authenticity, and patrilineal decent.”(5)

Bollywood) while condemning those parts that are considered unfit or insidious. Gayatri Gopinath, associate professor at NYU, discusses how “the fetishization of Bollywood as sexualized and gendered spectacle must be understood as yet another discursive mechanism that regulates and disciplines South Asian populations in the United States. The Bollywood boom, in this context, incorporates South Asians in the U.S. national imaginary as pure spectacle to be safely consumed while keeping intact their essential alienness and difference.” (5)

In addition to the “alienness and difference” that Desis encounter, the brown tech population (and the tech population in general) within the Bay Area is majority male, creating issues of sexism and divides among genders. Desi males are in a strange place – they are not at the top of the social ladder in the Bay Area, but they also bring their traditional cultural gender norms to America, which gives them a sense of entitlement and mastery. They also internalize the misogyny of the tech world. Being devalued in society makes them more likely to try to exert control in other parts of their lives, often over their partners or in their misogynistic assumptions of gender roles and identities. Therefore, brown women or Desis who don’t identify with normative gender roles are sidelined and marginalized even more.

The traditions brought from South Asia, the unique and pervasive influence of the Bay Area tech world, the exotification of Eastern culture, and the suspicion directed towards brown people after 9/11 – continue to influence concepts of South Asian sexuality in Northern California. With such an atmosphere, it is understandable that a counter culture would have formed in the Bay Area. This is especially true given the longer regional history of radical organizing. A few movements notably influential on any discussion of contemporary South Asian feminist organizing include: queer culture and activism, the feminist movement, and the rich history of brown activism in the Bay Area going as far back as the the 19th century Ghadar movement that was so prominent in Berkeley. (To learn more about these topics and much more, please go on the Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour!) (6)

Gopinath discusses the importance of creating a queer diasporic lens for South Asian issues that “becomes a way to challenge nationalist ideologies by insisting on the impure, inauthentic, nonreproductive potential of the notion of diaspora. Queer diasporic cultural forms suggest alternative forms of collectivity and communal belonging that redefine “home” as national, communal, or domestic space outside a logic of blood, purity, authenticity, and patrilineal decent.” (7)


Yoni Ki Baat Program Cover, 2015
Yoni Ki Baat

Yoni Ki Baat (YKB) is exemplary of a radical, creative space that integrates a queer, diasporic lens to allow South Asians (primarily women) to gather and talk without reserve and without being afraid of judgment or retribution. The gathering/performance is distinctly a product of the San Francisco Bay Area, influenced by the large Desi immigrant population, the issues of gender and misogyny within Silicon Valley and the tech bubble, and the many legacies of counter culture. Topics explored during the event range from hair removal, to domestic violence, to the appropriation of yoga. Both the patriarchal traditions of South Asia and the colonial influence of the West are explored and challenged.

YKB was started in 2003 by three Desi women; the idea emerged over a lunch at Udupi Palace, in Berkeley. These women came together through an organization called The South Asian Sisters, which aimed to bring together South Asian women and allied with similar groups. Sapna Shahani, Vandana Makker, and Maulie Dass were inspired in 2003 by the huge surge of South Asian organizational activity in the Bay Area, such as Trikone, the oldest South Asian LGBTQ magazine in the world that was started in the Bay Area, and Narika, a non-profit founded in 1992 by South Asian immigrant women in the Bay Area that addresses issues of domestic violence and provide services. As South Asian Sisters, they wanted to, according to Makker, “carve out a space specifically for women in the progressive Desi community”. Their initial vision was to create a show based on The Vagina Monologues, the hugely popular theatre program created by Eve Ensler, and use the unique experiences of South Asian women as specific episodes. Ensler promptly gave her permission and advice, and the was quickly organized through all volunteer effort. Today YKB is strictly volunteer run and is not a non-profit. (8)

<iframe src="https://archive.org/embed/VandanaClip1" width="500" height="30" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen="true" mozallowfullscreen="true" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Conversation with Vandana Makker

Interview by Omsri Bharat


Spotlights and Snapshots: The 2015 YKB (9)

Hair Removal: Always a hot-button topic in any South Asian circle, there were multiple pieces in YKB about hair removal and the connection of hairlessness to desirability. The pain, cost, tediousness, and embarrassment of something as seemingly innocuous as hair removal is deeply connected to being considered sexual and desirable. How is the notion that hair is considered ugly and uncivilized rooted in Western history and values?

Abortion and motherhood: Many pieces in YKB confront pain and confusion around choices of motherhood, including abortion. They discuss the expectations of maternalism and the judgment of a woman’s choice that comes from all communities, from South Asian families to Western doctors. Ultimately, patriarchal stances in both cultures oppress many women who cannot or do not want to have a family or those women who are raising families but have many doubts and “non-maternal” feelings.

<iframe src="https://archive.org/embed/VandanaClip2" width="500" height="30" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen="true" mozallowfullscreen="true" allowfullscreen></iframe>

Conversation with Vandana Makker

Interview by Omsri Bharat

Yoga and Appropriation: In the Bay Area, yoga is hugely popular. The ubiquity of this appropriated tradition creates confusion for people of South Asian descent who have to deal with a variety of factors including: first, the pervasive assumption of full knowledge of yoga and its origins by mostly white, upper or middle class people; second, the assumption that, because you are South Asian, you know all about yoga and all about an ancient culture that has many facets and many dimensions; third, that you, as a South Asian, are also jumping onto the yoga bandwagon…that in some ways, you too are appropriating an art that you know nothing about.

These are just a few examples of themes that YKB explores. YKB is a fascinating example of how Western culture and South Asian culture can influence each other. In some ways, it is ironic that a show meant to talk about the diasporic experiences of women and the influence of the West was created because of an idea from a Western piece of performance. It makes clear that the South Asian community can use certain Western influences to their advantage. Gopinath puts it beautifully when she says ““The concept of diaspora…is double-edged in that it can undercut and reify various forms of ethnic, religious, and state nationalisms while simultaneously…it can work to foreground notions of impurity and inauthenticity that resoundingly reject the ethnic and religious absolutism at the center of nationalist ideologies. But the danger of diaspora as a concept, ironically, is its adherence to precisely those same myths of purity and origin that seamlessly lend themselves to nationalist projects.” Diaspora can perhaps be beneficial to South Asian feminists because it gives us a lens to explore the patriarchal and dangerous messages of both our home culture and the Western culture we’re born into, thus giving us more power to address such issues. Specifically within the San Francisco Bay Area, we can use this lens to analyze the unique positions of Desis and Desi women in Silicon Valley and to call out the misogyny and racism prevalent in these communities. YKB provides a starting point by creating a radical and relatable discussion ground. It started in the Bay Area, but it has gained so much traction that the show has gone national to campuses and communities all over the United States, creating a diaspora of its own.


Notes
1. Indrani Chatterjee (2012). “When”Sexuality” Floated Free of Histories in South Asia”. The Journal of Asian Studies, 71, pp945-962
2. Shah, Nayan. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley: U of California, 2011.
3. Gopinath, Gayatri (2005). “Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11”. Social Text, 23, pp84-85
4. Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour, 2/21/2015
5. Gopinath, Gayatri (2005). “Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11”. Social Text, 23, pp84-85
6. Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour, 2/21/2015
7. Gopinath, Gayatri (2005). “Queer Diasporic Critique in the Aftermath of 9/11”. Social Text, 23, pp84-85
8. Interview with Vandana Makker, 3/24/2015.
9. Yoni Ki Baat show, author attended 4/18/2015