News / Arts & Entertainment

New Documentary Portrays Islam as Path to Women's Empowerment

Carolyn Weaver
A growing number of women in Islamic countries have turned in recent years to serious study of their religion: memorizing the Quran, learning to recite it properly, and studying hadith and other aspects of Islam. An American-made documentary, The Light in Her Eyes, shows how this religious movement can also foster greater freedom for women in traditional societies.

The focus of the film, Syrian preacher Houda al-Habash, established her summer Quran school for girls in 1982, when she was just 17. Until the spring of 2012, she held classes on the women's side of a Damascus mosque, where girls memorized the Quran, practiced reciting it, and studied other Islamic teachings. She also supervised religious study classes for girls and women in other parts of the city.

American filmmaker Julia Meltzer, who was teaching journalism at the University of Damascus in 2005, happened to meet al-Habash through a colleague who was studying with her.

"From the moment that I walked into her mosque, I thought, you know, we don't get to see places like this, where girls study Quran with other women who have been trained and studied for a long time," said Meltzer, who made the film with co-director Laura Nix.  
They were struck by how al-Habash merged conservative traditions with progressive ideals for women's greater role in the world. She believes that Islam requires women to wear hijab, and that wives should serve their husbands. Yet she also thinks women should be highly educated, and pursue careers and public lives, if they choose, even if it means staying up late to finish their housework, too.

"You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith, free in everything," she tells a graduating class at her school.

"Women can be teachers and students, women can rule and arbitrate," she says. "Does religious law allow a woman to be president? Yes! Don't shut off your brain," she urges the girls.

"It's a story about just one mosque," Nix explains. "We don't claim to be telling a story [about] the entire region. But at least for the girls and women in Houda's mosque, it's a place for them to go, in a way that's comfortable for their parents. And they're also driven to learn more about their religion, and Houda offers an environment that's very organized, very warm and inclusive and inviting."

Although warm, al-Habash also is a demanding teacher, who urges her students to read more, and study harder in their other classes. Islam regards all learning as a form of worship, she says, adding,"Whenever a human being reads, he benefits and his mind grows."

The Light in Her Eyes includes TV clips of ultraconservative male clerics protesting against women's participation in public life. al-Habash responds in the film by saying that her study of Islam has taught her that they are mistaken.

"Muslims themselves have deprived women of everything, even the right to learn, teach and to enter the mosque," she says firmly. "This is ignorance, which has nothing to do with religion."

The Light in Her Eyes Trailer

"Those clerics and their voice are so powerful an element in that region, and Houda is very much in contrast to them," Nix says. "But she believes that the way to make that change is through Islam. And by going through the Quran historically, and bringing up incidents of women working, women who ran businesses, she is showing a model to her whole community of what a different role for women can be."

Al-Habash's daughter, Enas al-Khaldi, was 20 at the time of the film, and studying international relations at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She also wears hijab, like her friends, who are shown together in lively conversations about Islamic traditions and their future marriages and careers.

"I started memorizing Quran when I was three years old," al-Khaldi tells the filmmakers. "And I finished memorizing Quran when I was 10. For girls, it is very important to learn what is in Quran, because if you don't really know what is the [truth], you are going to be misled."

Meltzer and co-director Laura Nix finished filming in November 2010, soon before the uprising began. They didn't have government permission to film, so they had to shoot discreetly, especially in the street.

"We never felt like we were in danger, but we recognized that at any point, we could be asked to stop shooting," Meltzer said. "The big challenge was for Houda to let us into her life and to let us into the mosque, because the risk was much, much greater for her. If she had been stopped or found out or questioned by the secret police, it could have been very dangerous for her and her family. Or they just might have shut her school down."

Why did al-Habash agree to take that risk?  "Houda's interested in having there be a different vision of Islam in the West," Meltzer says. "And she could tell we wanted to be able to give a different story. Occasionally when we were shooting something, she'd say, 'Oh no, you're not allowed to use that.' But when we included that in the final film, she didn't say anything. At the Dubai premiere, she came with her entire family, and she said she's really proud of the film, and feels it tells a truthful story about her."

The film had its U.S. broadcast premiere on the public television series POV.

You May Like

Pakistan Among Developing Countries Hit Hard by Global Warming

Pakistani officials hope developed nations agree to scale back emissions, offer help in dealing with climate change

Video Speed, Social Media Shape Counterterrorism Probes

Speed is critical in effort to prevent subsequent attacks; demographics of extremists lend themselves to communicating, establishing profiles on digital platforms

Islamic State Oil Trade Seduces Friends, Foes Alike

Terrorist group rakes in up to $500 million a year in sales to customers such as Syrian government, US-supported rebels and Turkey

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigationsi
Katherine Gypson
December 01, 2015 10:06 PM
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Social Media Aids Counter-Terrorism Investigations

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, officials carried out waves of raids and arrests to break up terror cells. As VOA's Katherine Gypson reports, social media can be a key tool for investigators.

Video Russia Marks World AIDS Day With Grim News

While HIV infection rates have steadied or even declined in many European countries, the caseload has grown rapidly in Russia, as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow. Over half of the new infections were transmitted through injection drug use.

Video Pakistan Hit Hard by Global Warming

As world leaders meet in Paris to craft a new global agreement aimed at cutting climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions, many developing countries are watching closely for the final results. While most developing nations contribute much less to global warming than developed countries, they often feel the effects to a disproportionate degree. As Saud Zafar reports from Karachi, one such nation is Pakistan. Aisha Khalid narrates his report.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

Beyond Category: Keiko Matsuii
|| 0:00:00
November 25, 2015 1:45 PM
Keiko Matsui’s music has been labeled many things – Jazz, Smooth Jazz, New Age, World Music. But whatever the label, the pianist-composer’s sound is always her own. Keiko Matsui takes the VOA Stage to perform some of her best-loved songs, and to talk with Beyond Category host Eric Felten about her life in music.

Keiko Matsui’s music has been labeled many things – Jazz, Smooth Jazz, New Age, World Music. But whatever the label, the pianist-composer’s sound is always her own. Keiko Matsui takes the VOA Stage to perform some of her best-loved songs, and to talk with Beyond Category host Eric Felten about her life in music.