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

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor More

ILO: Women Still Losing Out in Global Work Place

International Labor Organization says women are marginally better off now than they were 20 years ago More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Studentsi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
March 05, 2015 9:04 PM
The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

Country-pop singer, Lizzie Sider sits down with "Border Crossings" host Larry London to perform songs from her new album, “Butterfly,” and to talk about her anti-bullying tour.

Blogs

African Music Treasures