A review of The Light in Her Eyes, a documentary film by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix.
2011, 77 minutes (theatrical cut: 88 minutes).
The Light in Her Eyes will air Thursday, July 19th as part of PBS’ POV series (check local listings for broadcast time).
by Rachel Riederer
It’s difficult for me to conceive of the memorization of scripture as even a mildly progressive act, let alone a radical one. But The Light in Her Eyes, a documentary by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, sets out to prove that it is. The documentary centers on Houda al-Habash, a conservative Muslim preacher and the director of the all-girls Al-Zahra Mosque Qur’an school in Damascus. Houda and her staff of female teachers instruct their students, who range from elementary to high school age, in the study, memorization and recitation of the Qur’an. The filmmakers completed shooting in November, 2010, just a few months before the Syrian uprising erupted.
Houda is a strict, no-nonsense teacher. She scolds girls who mumble or mispronounce in their Qur’an recitations, and warns them about their bathing suit length on a fieldtrip to a swimming pool in the countryside. Her lessons emphasize modesty, piety, and service to husband and family. At home, her family talks about her work while Houda serves dishes of ice cream. “Of course I fully support my wife in her work,” Houda’s husband says, “This doesn’t mean, however, that a women shouldn’t know her duties. A man works hard to provide for his family, so his home should be a place of relief.” Most of the film, though, is spent with the women and girls—in school, at home, on shopping trips or socializing—and along the way, a feel for life in pre-uprising Damascus emerges.
By putting Houda’s work into context, the filmmakers show that work to be a feminist act—the process of playing with this position and deciding whether it is convincing is one of the pleasures of the film. The film cuts between shots of her students reciting passages in lilting voices, and news footage of conservative clerics declaring, “Our Lord created four duties for women that no one can argue with: reproduce, raise her children, take care of her husband, take care of the house,” and “If a woman does as the Prophet says, then she should stay home as much as possible.” The clerics we hear from are Sunni conservatives from the Gulf (Saad Alkhathlan) and Egypt (Wagdy Ghoneim, Abu Ishaq al-Heweny). They are widely broadcast on satellite TV and well known in the region, but much less so, I suspect, to a non-Muslim westerner without a fairly rigorous interest in these issues. Though their time on screen is brief, these clerics play a significant role in the film. In placing Houda and her work side-by-side in conversation with these prominent firebrands, the filmmakers simultaneously invest her with an authority equal to theirs, and emphasize both the seriousness of the opposition to and the potentially transformative nature of her project. We learn less about any specifically Syrian or Damascus-based communal debate or controversy about Houda’s work (if any exists), but nonetheless it’s a provocative and effective choice by Meltzer and Nix.
With these clerics as foils, Houda’s work certainly does seem feminist. Still, Houda’s is an odd sort of feminism to Western eyes (at least to mine). Houda’s passion for women’s education is informed by her Muslim faith; so is her commitment to a restricted vision of women’s proper roles. In the words of the filmmakers, “Houda’s version of women’s rights doesn’t look like ours.”
In the course of the film, our vision of Houda shifts. We start to see who she is beyond her role as religion teacher and devoted wife and mother. She is also a leader and a counselor—women come to her for advice about education and legal problems; teenage girls discuss with her the decision to wear or not to wear the hijab. (Houda does, and encourages but does not require her students to do the same.) She is also a promoter of women’s work and education more broadly. When a young female journalist asks her how she responds to the charge that increasing religiosity in Syria is setting women back and making it more difficult for them to work outside the home, Houda answers, “that’s not because of religiosity. It may be due to extremism. But Islam does not prevent women from working… I’m just a woman teaching other women.” Her answer is deft and politic, but more importantly, it asks viewers to mentally redraw the line between conservative religiosity and religious extremism, a line that is often blurred when talking about faith (especially Islam; especially in the West).
The conviction that motivates Houda’s work is a classic: knowledge is power. This is especially true for women in contemporary Islam. Houda’s 20-year-old daughter Enas, who attends university abroad in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), explains that while memorizing the Qur’an is not an obligation, it is an important tool for Muslim women to protect themselves. “For a girl, it is very important to know what is in the Qur’an—if you don’t know what is the true thing, you are going to be misled.” Over the course of the film, the girls complete Houda’s two-month Qur’an memorization course. But the most compelling aspect of the film isn’t the scriptural study itself: it’s the other conversations that take place in these study spaces. The students talk about the Qur’an, of course, and about the hijab. But they also sing songs and give each other advice. They talk about dresses and families and plans for the future. They discuss studying abroad, politics, and how they feel about traditional gender roles in Syrian culture, about Islam’s reputation in the West.
Often these conversations get radical. One women visits Houda’s office for advice about a divorce—her husband’s family is trying to take custody of her son and force her to return the clothes that were part of her dowry. Houda advises her of the relevant Islamic teachings and tells her to get a lawyer. In another scene, several instructors sit around chatting about how they became teachers. Ameena Rashid, a 38-year-old unmarried woman who is in her third year of university, describes the difficulty of going back to school as an adult, saying she “felt like a little child.” She relishes the respect she gets now, she says, being called “teacher” and thought of as an authority. This stands in stark contrast to the way she’s treated outside of her work. “Especially in my village, it’s not easy to be unmarried at my age,” she says. When she describes the depth of this marriage pressure—“Girls start qualifying as spinsters when they are 20. They say ‘she’s not married and she’s 20? God help her!’”—the whole group dissolves in laughter.
The women and girls in the film address these issues with varying degrees of directness and humor. Enas and her college-aged friends are earnest. “What are our greatest challenges as women?” she asks a small group at the mosque. “Customs and traditions,” one friend quickly answers. Another indignantly recalls an old saying: “A woman goes only two places: to her husband’s house and to her grave.” The young women proceed to critique what they view as a pattern in the Islamic world, citing “customs and traditions”—and more precisely, the social-political “use” of customs and traditions—as the biggest challenge to them as Muslim women. Of religiously-authorized restrictions on womens’ careers and mobility, Enas observes, “You can’t just tell us it’s a religious rule. Let us interpret the facts.” To which her friend replies, “At some point these traditions took on religious authority. Incorrectly!”
The younger girls are more lighthearted, but they are expressing the same dissatisfaction with the idea that their place ought to be solely in the home. In one scene, a group of giggling teenagers interrogates a slightly older girl who has recently married. They ask each other how many kids they will have, and when, and what kind of man they might like to marry. “Someone who will let me come and go as I please!” says one girl, laughing. “She doesn’t want say ‘Hello, can I go out please?’” her friend continues, miming talking into a phone as if calling the imaginary husband to ask permission. Whether this kind of conversation happens in a mosque study group or a garden café over milkshakes matters little: this is what consciousness-raising looks like.
In the 1970s, American feminists used consciousness-raising meetings to help women change the way they thought about their lives. When women’s lives are limited to the home, when they are isolated from one another, it’s easy to imagine that the issues they face are “personal” and “domestic.” The act of gathering as a group and analyzing those experiences—even if just to laugh at their absurdity—helps create political awareness, an understanding that their experiences are part of larger systems. The process looks and sounds different when it’s happening in the context of a religious education, but its core is the same.
The film ends with the Qur’an memorization course graduation day. The girls who have memorized the most pages receive awards, and the whole assembly sings songs in their honor. Houda delivers a sort of commencement speech. “Pray, and push yourself,” she advises. “What I really wish for you girls is to speak up if there’s something you don’t like. You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith.”
Her emphasis on freedom resonates with another ceremony that happens earlier in the film, when several girls decide to wear the hijab. Houda has encouraged them to do so, but one girl has decided against it. This seems to be fine with Houda, who simply told the girl to “think about it.” These moments make it clear that Houda occupies a truly unusual philosophical space: while she’s very conservative in her own approach to religion, she’s not interested in forcing others to replicate her path, but simply wants her students to make their own well-considered choices. It’s the kind of position that, with our political and religious discourse as polarized and nasty as it is—I had almost forgotten was possible.
The Light In Her Eyes is a reminder of limits of the labels “conservative” and “progressive”: they are distinctions that operate on many axes and change their colors against different backdrops. Houda ends her graduation speech with a simple reminder: “Don’t shut off your brains.”
Update from the filmmakers: Houda and her family have relocated to the Gulf region due to the crisis in Syria. The school is closed; she plans to return and reopen it as soon as she can. Visit the film’s website to watch a trailer. Visit the POV website for a recent interview and update from Enas, Houda’s daughter.
Rachel Riederer is the acting editor of Guernica Daily. She teaches at Baruch College in New York.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.