Hearing about the horrific violence and political turmoil in Syria has greatly saddened me, as well as raised questions about the background of the country. How, I wonder, has day-to-day life been for Syrians, and particularly for Syrian women, while being ruled by an oppressive military regime for the past 40 years?
The beautiful documentary “The Light In Her Eyes” opens a window into the changing roles of girls, women, and Islam in Syria. These subjects are illuminated by the story of school for girls to study the Qur’an. Until political unrest caused this school to take an indefinite hiatus, Houda Al-Habash offered 2 month long summer courses in mosques across Damascus. It was one of the first Qur’an schools for girls in Syria, and Houda opened it when she was just 17. Her aim was to empower women by making sure they were as educated on the Qur’an as possible so that they would know what God would allow them to do. And according to Houda, God will allow them to do whatever they want, including becoming the president. The movie will air on the 25th anniversary season of PBS’s award-winning POV series on Thursday, July 19th at 10 PM.
Along with Houda’s progressive attitude comes a strict work ethic. Her school is filmed in session with girls rigorously memorizing the Qur’an and practicing its correct enunciation. Houda is hard on her students (as well as their teachers,) and encourages the girls not to waste time or make mistakes. Houda also believes that God requires girls to wear the headscarf, known as a hijab, and dress conservatively. For her, education is a form of worship.
Intriguingly for me, Syria has not been a largely Islamic country until recently. In telling scenes of the streets in Syria, women in shorts and tank tops walk next to women covered with hijabs and long sleeves. Houda says that when she was a child there were only 4 or 5 girls she knew studying the Qur’an, and that now there are hundreds.
This embracing of Islam by girls and women is getting heat from both ends of the religious spectrum. The voices of educated, secular women who are concerned about religion keeping women out of the work force are heard, as well as those of conservative Muslim clerics who are concerned about women being taken from their families by their new role in the mosque.
As a good documentary should, the film uses interwoven perspectives to show that nothing is black and white. Every country is complicated beyond belief, especially those ravaged by violence and political turmoil. I was made glaringly more aware of my vast ignorance of this region of the world while at the same time being skillfully educated. I really enjoyed watching this film, and highly recommend tuning in to PBS for its airing.