Play reveals struggles of South Asian women

THEATER REVIEW

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — In response to Eve Enseler’s feminist “Vagina Monologues,” a series of theatrical vignettes on the theme of contemporary women’s gender and social oppression, South Asian Sisters, a California-based group, developed “Yoni Ki Baat” (“Talks of the Vagina”).

“Yoni Ki Baat” highlights the experiences of South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) women in the contemporary U.S. Over the last few years, the theater piece has been widely performed in university and community settings, with various groups of South Asian women adding their own experiences to the theatrical mix.

The South Asian Women’s Collective of Rutgers University presented a spirited version of “Yoni Ki Baat” at Trayes Hall, Douglass College Center, on Oct. 28. Andolan, a New York-based group that fights for the rights and welfare of superexploited South Asian workers, made a significant contribution to the performance.

Together they gave the performance a special character — an alliance of students and workers. The students are fighting to make sense of a society where anything goes if you have the right credit card and skin color. The workers are struggling against brutal forms of indentured servitude, often at the hands of fellow South Asians who have brought them here with work permits and the lure of a better life, yet who keep them captive as domestic servants and household workers.

The characters in the play speak their bitterness and then disappear and sometimes are brought back to continue their story.

Translators repeat the stories of the real women from the Andolan group — stories that remind me of U.S. abolitionist slave narratives. The women have their passports held by the families who employ them, work for the families as long as the families demand, and are paid what the families decide upon. Sometimes they are beaten. Always they are humiliated.

One woman has soiled diapers thrown in her face when she fails to take care of a child in time. Another lies unconscious for three hours after she is struck down, only to be assisted by a doctor in the building who recommends that her employers (“owners” might be a better term) take her to the hospital. She is never taken to a hospital.

These women have neither the choices nor the specific frustrations of their middle-class sisters. Some escape and are helped by Andolan and other organizations in much the same way that runaway slaves in the U.S. were helped by abolitionist societies. In spite of what they have experienced, these women have maintained their dignity and their commitment to fight to free themselves and those who face similar conditions.

Supporting groups like Andolan and actively demanding that labor laws in the U.S. be both strengthened and enforced to end these conditions for workers should be a high priority for the general labor movement and all progressive organizations. If this is the “free labor market” offered by 21st-century “globalization,” it bears a striking resemblance to the slavery and wage slavery that enriched 19th-century “laissez-faire” capitalism.

The personal problems posed by the vignettes of middle-class women can’t be so easily addressed by labor law and social policy. The problems of hatred and self-hatred, of living in a society where the barriers are like a house of mirrors and windows (where you are always bumping into glass when you think that you can safely move from one place to another), can only be solved by long-term social and cultural pluralism.

Such pluralism is one in which the cultures of immigrant nationalities become part of a larger growing American culture — in short, a community within a larger community — in an atmosphere of mutual respect, rather than a ghetto characterized by some combination of defiance and self-hatred, which ghettoes always are.

The experiences highlighted in “Yoni Ki Baat” — a student angry at her boyfriend for dating a “white girl” and “betraying” his people, a middle-class Pakistani schoolgirl told by her middle-class mother not to play with a sweeper’s daughter, and a college student told by her Indian father never to tell her eventual husband that she has had sex with another man (and a non-Indian at that) whom she has no intentions of marrying — can’t be solved by legislation and regulation. They can be addressed, though, in and through a society that provides greater social and economic security for people of all backgrounds and encourages and rewards social cooperation, rather than individual and group competition.

By raising important issues for South Asians and many others, “Yoni Ki Baat” contributes to the social forces that work for such a society. Those interested in the campaign to help free new “indentured servants” and low-income South Asian workers can visit www.andolan.net for further information and ongoing activities.