If you follow world news at all, you probably know that things look pretty bleak in Syria these days. The violence there is bloody and ongoing, and the international community seems unsure of the best way to restore a sense of stability. But a new documentary shows that there is another, more positive, revolution taking place in Syria, at least in regards to one woman’s efforts to educate young girls and to change attitudes about women’s relationship with Islam. The documentary is The Light in Her Eyes, part of PBS’s long-running POV (Point of View) series, and it premieres on that channel on July 19th, 2012, at 10 pm.
The film follows Houda al-Habash, a conservative Muslim woman living in Syria’s capital of Damascus. Habash has led an extraordinary life, defying cultural norms to become an Islamic preacher at just 17 years old. She opened the Al-Zahra Mosque Qur’an School for girls thirty years ago, and she has been offering Syrian young women a chance to grow in their education and their religion ever since. The school holds sessions every summer, and Habash leads classes on Islam in which she counsels students to speak freely about their opinions and ideas. She teaches that, if things are to change for women's roles in Islamic society, women must learn that tradition and religion are two different things and that many of the justifications used to oppress women have no actual basis in religious law.
The goals of the academy are twofold. On one hand, Habash works to allow women to claim space in the traditionally male-dominated world of the mosque and to devote time to learning the Qur'an. On the other, she aims to show that “secular education is an integral part of worship." Habash’s own 20-year-old daughter, Enas al-Khaldi, has taken her mother’s message to heart and says she now can “see that I can serve Islam better if I study politics or if I study economics or media.”
The Light in Her Eyes covers Hasbash’s work in her school, but it also includes comments from her husband and her colleagues as well as statements from male clerics that continue to denounce women’s education. The filmmakers, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, say the project "uncovered a lively debate about women’s roles as mothers, teachers, wives, workers, sisters and daughters" within the community. The film is sure to offer a fascinating look at a rising generation of Middle Eastern women, poised to shake the patriarchal power structure of their region.
Check out a preview clip of several of Habash's students smartly discussing women's changing roles in a changing world: