Reading the Quran is risky — if a Muslim woman does it
TV Review: The Light in Her Eyes. Clockshop, produced in association with American Documentary-POV. Broadcast date: 10 p.m. July 19 on PBS (check local listings). 56 minutes.
“We can be teachers and students; we can rule and arbitrate,” Houda Al-Habash tells her Quran class for girls in Damascus. “You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith, free in everything.”
If only it were that simple. But of course, it never is, not in the Middle East. The Light in Her Eyes strikes a hopeful tone, but it was shot shortly before the civil war that currently grips Syria.
The documentary, directed and produced by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, shows the delicate balance of Middle Eastern women in advancing intellectually while staying true to their faith — a faith whose leaders often denounce their efforts.
Nix and Meltzer focus on the two-month Quran memorization program Houda sponsored every summer at Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus. Now in her 40s, she founded the program at 17, then gradually began supervising similar programs at mosques around the Syrian capital.
She presents a mix of opposites, wearing black robes but donning sunglasses and driving around Damascus in her car. Making rounds of mosques, she delivers a mix of praise and demands — both of students and their teachers — smiling but prodding everyone to work harder.
The students are charmingly like young girls elsewhere: giggly, fidgety, quick with smiles and silly songs. But they’re also dutiful, pacing circles on the mosque’s carpet with their Qurans, reciting what they consider to be direct quotes from God.
The girls do get positive reinforcement, too. When one memorizes a chapter, Houda has everyone else applaud her. Houda gives an award to the girl who memorized the most. And all the girls go on an overnight field trip, including a dip in a pool — though Middle Eastern swimsuits include sleeves, pants and little skirts.
Change is everywhere in Damascus, as The Light in Her Eyes shows. Women in hijabs and bulky coats share the streets with others who wear jeans and pullovers.
In the background are conservative Muslim scholars, represented by grim lecturers on TV. They sternly state that women’s religious duties are to bear and raise children, take care of the home and serve the husband. None are invited on camera, creating a bias in this documentary. Then again, Nix and Meltzer weren’t filming with the Syrian dictatorship’s permission.
Houda’s husband, Samir Al-Khaldi, says he supports her in her quranic memorization classes, as long as she keeps up her wifely and motherly duties. “A man works hard to provide for his family,” he says.
Some of the students complain often about the rules they feel are holding them back — indeed, causing the whole Islamic world to fall behind. But like Houda, they always blame custom, culture and tradition, not the religion itself.
“If a mother never learns, how can she teach the next generation?” one girl asks. “A woman is a school. If you teach her, you teach a generation.”
Enas, Houda’s 20-year-old daughter, is taking the next step: studying international relations at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She and Houda acknowledge that some Syrians still frown on a girl going off by herself to study — let alone study secular topics. But “I can serve Islam better if I study politics or economics,” Enas says.
Not that Houda encourages outright rebellion. Indeed, she makes it a privilege for her students to wear a hijab, comparing it to a national flag, an emblem of the faith. And the graduation ceremony is a very big deal — dressing the girls in white gowns and laurels as a female chorale sings the praise of virtuous women.
What a difference from feminism of the 1960s and ’70s in the West. Women’s rights activists here felt the need to reject religion, or at least the parts of it that they perceived was hurting their rights. In proto-feminist circles of Syria, women want it all: the roots of their faith and the opportunity to learn.
It’s all lovely, but in Syria it may be doomed. A postscript to the film notes the uprising that started in spring 2011. A year later, Houda and her family fled Syria, and the school closed. Light in someone’s eyes can be beautiful, but it’s also fragile.
Besides the rundate, The Light in Her Eyes will be available for streaming on the PBS website from July 20 to Aug. 19.
James D. Davis