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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.

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