Tasveer has made a name for itself in Seattle over the past decade and a half. In that time the non-profit organization that aims to engage the South Asian community through film and art has grown, boldly creating a space for South Asians to discuss current issues and share stories.
Every spring, Tasveer organizes a women’s festival called Aaina, meaning mirror in Hindi and Urdu. The festival began in 2006, and in its 12 years it has offered up a variety of panels, open mics, and what has in recent years become a unique centerpiece for the festival: a South Asian version of the Vagina Monologues, called Yoni Ki Baat. Yoni Ki Baat is a series of original, personal stories, performed by the womxn and trans persons who wrote them. They are bold, authentic and honest, and they open up conversations about women, sexuality and gender, topics that are often shied away from in normative South Asian cultures.
This year, Yoni Ki Baat will be directed by Uma Rao, and it’ll be the first of its kind, highlighting and celebrating South Asian womxn, trans, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming voices. Rao has been involved with Tasveer since the organization’s early years and has seen many a YKB performance. Over time, she noticed that as powerful as the stories were, she wanted to see something more on stage.
“I couldn’t help but notice that every year I was looking to find queer voices because I am a queer voice. I’ve seen it sometimes but it’s rare – and that just conflicts with my actual lived experience here in Seattle. There is a larger South Asian community that is queer, and I just think it’s time for our stories to be there,” said Rao.
This year, stories featuring the perspective of straight, cys-gender women will be in the minority, standing beside the stories of LGBTQ individuals. Rao says it’s a way to flip the script and to consider another perspective, posing important questions: “What will people learn and what will people’s reactions be?”
Rao says she feels even more of an urgency to make sure that these voices are heard as our country’s political climate become increasingly hostile. After 2017’s divisive election, there’s a necessity for safe spaces that welcome sharing.
“Now we are living in dark times. I actually feel that way, and its cheesy but that phrase ‘all you need is love’ is really true,” said Rao. “I think we have to approach each other with love and take care of each other.”
LGBTQ voices are plentiful in the South Asian community, but their stories and experiences face the challenge of being shut down and pushed aside. Rao says that’s not because of a lack of love, but because these stories haven’t had the opportunity to be heard and understood by elders and parents who have been socialized into a very rigid understanding of gender and sexuality.
“Our community is starting to find these resources, but we’re not talking to each other,” said Rao, citing that there needs to be internal work within South Asian circles to educate, learn, and create a comfortable space for all its people.
Sumathi Raghavan is the program manager for Tasveer and says that while this year’s YKB production is exciting, it also illuminates just how much uncertainty there is in the South Asian community about the LGBTQ experience.
“I’m eager to see the performances, I’m eager to hear what the conversation is like afterwards. I’m hoping that people will rise to the occasion and show their best selves,” said Raghavan.
Along with Yoni Ki Baat, Aaina promises a line-up of panels and presentations by South Asian women for South Asian women. Executive director Rita Meher said that the festival is becoming just what she envisioned 12 years ago. After starting the Seattle South Asian Film Festival in 2004, Meher felt that there was a lack of women’s voice in the festival’s films and conversations. That’s when Aaina was born, a weekend dedicated to women and the unique perspectives they bring as South Asian people.
This year, the program features a networking event focused on how freelancers can find community, clients and courage to take the plunge into self-employment. Another panel will answer audience questions about changing immigration laws, addressing the complicated dynamics of being the spouse of an H1-B visa holder whose right to work in the United States is threatened to be revoked under the Trump administration. Given that many South Asians in Seattle are in the country with H1-B visas, this is an issue that has drawn concern within the community.
Raghavan also cites the amount of pressure the “model minority myth” puts on South Asians – whether they immigrated to or were born on American soil.
South Asians are often stuffed into a pressure cooker of smart and successful stereotypes that become an internalized measuring stick for the community. Amidst that pressure, “it’s also valuable to have a place where you can come and be a little more vulnerable and talk about what is not so great in your life,” said Raghavan.
Meher says there are many issues that need to be addressed and discussed in way that is unique to people – regardless of their generation – who shared the rich legacy of South Asia’s complicated histories and cultures.
Meher puts it this way: “We can just be ourselves and don’t need to explain too much to each other and focus on telling the story more genuinely and freely. I think it’s a healing space for all the South Asian participants who take place in that space, and they form this really deep camaraderie and friendship that is hard to get.”
This year’s program promises to be inspiring by pushing boundaries, challenging people to be vulnerable, and open their hearts and minds to one another just a little more than before. Storytelling is key to that journey.
“I think it’s an honor to witness stories,” said Rao. “Anyone sharing their story and being vulnerable is really powerful.”