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

    Saudi Arabia’s New Female Politicians in the Other Room 

    Many in Saudi Arabia say elected representatives should share unsegregated spaces; according to a recent survey, more than half the Saudi population, both men and women, prefer to work in a segregated place

    Russia Not ‘Apologetic’ for Syria Airstrikes

    With Moscow criticized for targeting armed opponents of President Assad, Russia’s UN envoy says his country ‘acting in a very transparent manner’

    Pakistan Warns of Islamic State's Growing Reach

    Aftab Sultan, General Director General of Intelligence Bureau (IB), briefed Senate Committee in closed hearing, saying that IS-linked groups have been expanding in Pakistan

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.

    New in Music Alley

    Soul Lounge: Sweet Honey in the Rocki
    || 0:00:00
    ...  
     
    X
    February 10, 2016 1:48 PM
    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B. The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.

    For over 40 years Sweet Honey In The Rock has entertained audiences around the globe with their signature blend of Blues, African, Gospel and R&B.   The Grammy award winning group stopped by The Soul Lounge to perform and share their story as well as how they plan to keep African American musical traditions alive.