Emina Ashman’s debut play Make Me A Houri is a compelling and often hilarious picture of female desire in patriarchal society, says Alison Croggon
We call it the “male gaze”: the patriarchal eye that defines everything about being female in terms of male desire. It’s a gaze that women internalise and reproduce, until they no longer know what their own desires are.
Being a woman is complicated in every patriarchal culture. On the one hand, you are defined by your body. On the other, in order to be the ideal woman, you have to pretend almost everything about your body doesn’t exist. As seen in fashion magazines every day, the ideal woman has no excess hair, menstrual blood or unsightly wrinkles.
Malaysian-born theatre maker Emina Ashman’s poem-play Make Me a Houri, now on at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre, takes the figure of the houri as a starting point for a critique of the whole patriarchal clusterfuck, reminding us that this feminine ideal goes back for millennia.
A newly dead woman (Ashman) wakes in a kind of limbo – an abstract space strewn with dead leaves, and domestically furnished with a fridge and kitchen cupboard – to find herself with a mysterious handmaiden (Nisha Joseph). The dead woman believes that her lover is in Paradise, and she demands that she be turned into a houri so she can be with him.
As with all aspects of religion, there are many versions of houri, who are given to the faithful in paradise. As her companion explains, houri are both “chaste” and “voluptuous”. They have “eyes like pearls” and no body hair. They are transparent “to the marrow of their bones”, and they are perpetual virgins. They drink milk and water constantly but never pee. And every day they revirginate.
Ashman and her collaborators find a rich comedy in these impossibilities. The transformation begins with a herbal vaginal steam (as endorsed, it’s impossible not to recall, by Gwyneth Paltrow). Ashman squats unglamorously over a metal bucket only to find that Nisha’s herbal mix includes a dash of chili. The predictable result: Ashman has to cool down her lady parts in the fridge.
Together the two women begin to reminisce, remembering times when they signally failed to be the kind of impossible woman their families or societies demanded. They articulate their desires and rebellions, which shift from lyrical to heartbreaking to absurd: in one anecdote, a woman recalls dressing up as a Halal Snack Pack for Halloween; in others, they recall lusting over blond surfers. But every tale has a sting.
This text is more a dramatic poem than a play: it often shifts into spoken word, or a kind of expansive lyricism that English writers often shy away from, but which echoes the images of sources such as Persian court poetry or the Q’uran. Ashman’s text weaves together the sacred and the profane, posing mundane everyday reality in tandem with the metaphysics of religious dogmas.
Stephanie Ghajar’s direction preserves these ambiguities and contradictions, so the work settles neither in secular nor religious realities. Lara Weeks’ design, beautifully lit by Shane Grant, frames the performances with a sense of both domesticity and strangeness. Well worth a look.
Make Me a Houri by Emina Ashman, directed by Stephanie Ghajar. Set and costume by Lara Week, lighting by Shane Grant, sound design and composition by Sidney Millar. La Mama Courthouse. Until August 4. Bookings