the-light-in-her-eyes-documentary-reviewThe role of women in Islam has generated considerable debate internationally. One remarkable documentary elucidates this discussion by sharing the story of Houda al-Habash, a Syrian Muslim preacher and leader.

The first feature film made inside the women’s side of a mosque in Syria, The Light in Her Eyes takes audiences into a world rarely seen by outsiders. One of the directors, Laura Nix, argues that “Americans have been introduced to two types of women in Islam: one who is oppressed and the other who rejects her faith in order to be liberated.” This film does not feed the polarized and tired debate between faith and modernity. Instead, it showcases why modern women are choosing to practice Islam in a rapidly changing society.

In 1982, at the age of 17, Houda al-Habash opened a Qur’an school for women and girls at Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. The Qur’an school takes place during the summer so as to not conflict with students’ secular education—which al-Habash teaches her students to take seriously. Enclosed in the mosque, al-Habash has created a safe space for her students to share their opinions but also to be challenged.

Included in the film are several clips of conservative Muslim male clerics expounding on how women should be limited to house activities and not be active in mosques. These clips are juxtaposed with alternative narratives of the Islamic tradition about Muslim women who have served as religious scholars and teachers during and after the time of Prophet Muhammad, a tradition that Houda al-Habash is following.

Through memorization of the Qur’an, al-Habash empowers young women to know their religion, their rights, and their duties and obligations. Treating education as a form of worship, al-Habash seeks new and creative ways for students to “love the mosque, the Qur’an, and Islam,” and motivates them to contribute to the betterment of society. According to director Laura Nix, one important message of the film is “learning to take responsibility for your own life and using education as a tool to advance what you want to do for yourself.”

Her students certainly understand the significance of education. As one young girl student in the film eloquently states, “A woman is a school. You teach her, and she teaches a generation.”

Through intimate coverage of day-to-day activities and conversations, this documentary provides a portrait of a pioneering Muslim woman and her vision for the future of her young coreligionists. The Light in Her Eyes is a rare, and much needed, glimpse at the world through eyes of modern Muslim women.

The Light in Her Eyes was completed in November 2010, four months before the Syrian uprising. Due to the dire conditions, al-Habash and her family fled and the school was shut down. Directors Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix claim “it is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.”

Nama Khalil is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.

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