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Filmmakers Find Surprises at an Islamic School for Girls in Syria

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Airing this week on PBS, The Light in Her Eyes portrays a religious teacher pursuing a complicated set of goals to enrich her studentslives.

Certain storylines tend to rule the day in western depictions of Middle Eastern women’s lives. As independent filmmaker Laura Nix explains it: “The messages we see of Islamic women are honor killings and being stoned to death. Or we see a woman reject her religion in order to be liberated.”

But with her new documentary, “The Light in Her Eyes,” airing on PBS July 19, Nix offers a portrayal that viewers may find more nuanced, surprising and, ultimately, intriguing.

In the film, Nix and partner Julia Meltzer profile the work of a Syrian female scholar of the Koran, Houda al-Habash, who combines her piety with the belief that women should obtain a secular education and pursue public lives and leadership if they choose. The film focuses on a school that Habash started in 1982, when she was just 17, to teach the Koran to girls and women.

While the concept doesn’t sound groundbreaking, it is. First, most religious scholarship and serious study of the Koran in Syria are undertaken by males. Further, Habash uses the preacher’s pulpit to spread a message of female empowerment, though always within the context of her religion.

“What’s unusual about Houda is she really encourages students to take their secular education seriously,” Meltzer says. “She says that a part of worshiping God is being educated and not just learning about Islam.” She also makes the point that many restrictions on Muslim women derive from cultural practice, not the Koran.

In one memorable scene Habash is seen holding a microphone and lecturing her students, who are assembled before her.

“Does religious law allow a woman to be president?” Habash asks and then quickly answers her own question: “Yes!” The film also depicts everyday moments of family and friendship—teen girls joking in a restaurant, for example—and it captures the all-female camaraderie among the students in Habash’s school.

“Women and girls from conservative families are not encouraged to leave the house much. What the mosque allows women to do is go to a place outside their home to learn something and socialize. That allows these girls a particular amount of freedom they might not have otherwise,” Meltzer says. “I spoke to women in their 40s and 50s who were studying with her [Habash] and said, ‘My life was miserable until I came to the mosque.’ I met women whom Houda had encouraged to go back and finish elementary and high school education in their 30s and 40s. It gave them a sense of themselves and pride.”

Habash is one of a growing number of female Islamic scholars in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon belonging to the women’s mosque movement, according to Meltzer. She came to Meltzer’s attention in 2005 during the filmmaker’s Fulbright scholarship in Damascus.

“I met Houda through a friend and shot some stuff in the mosque in 2005 and thought, ‘This is really interesting, we never get to see women doing what they do in a mosque,’” Meltzer remembers. She also was drawn to Habash, whom she found warm, dynamic and sometimes, “a bit intimidating.”

Habash may seem contradictory at first by western feminist standards. She appears to pressure her students to don the headscarf. She preaches education and leadership for women, but makes clear that her role is foremost as a mother, wife and homemaker. Further, she could not run her school without her husband’s support and approval. But among religious conservatives in Syria, she’s moderate—progressive even. And many professional women in western countries struggle to balance similarly competing obligations of job and family, Nix points out.

Making the documentary proved challenging, as Habash resisted Meltzer’s and Nix’s requests to film inside her school for a long time. At one point, Habash asked the pair to obtain government approval of the project, which never came.

Due to the segregated religious environment in Syria, “We never could have made the film if we weren’t female filmmakers,” says Nix, who agrees with Meltzer that Habash put herself at risk by permitting the filming without government sanction.

The documentary’s on-site work was completed before the Arab spring and Syria’s subsequent violent uprising, which has driven Habash and her family out of the country. But the film’s quiet portrait of pious women fusing religion and empowerment is not irrelevant to what’s currently unfolding Syria right now—far from it, Nix explains.

If, after the bloodshed, a conservative religious government is elected to power in Syria as has happened in Egypt, Habash’s school might represent the future for women.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen there, but her school offers a peek into what Syria might look like,” Nix says.

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