At Ramadan, PBS shows women emerging in Islam

From left: Julia Meltzer, Houda al-Habash and Laura Nix.WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO SEE “THE LIGHT IN HER EYES”
“The Light in Her Eyes” is scheduled for a national broadcast on PBS’s highly praised POV series, Thursday July 19—the eve of the Ramadan fast. Check showtimes and learn about watching the documentary for free online from July 20 through August 19, which is a great service for people living in areas where local public TV stations don’t carry the POV series. For more information on POV’s 25th year, including previews of upcoming films, visit the main POV site.

PBS has scheduled this documentary to debut on the eve of Ramadan—and to broadcast online throughout the fasting month for the world’s Muslims. Read our complete story on Ramadan 2012.

Review: ‘Light in Her Eyes’
Syrian pioneer preaches women’s rights

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Religon would become far more practical and peaceful if women finally were unleashed in the world’s two largest religous groups: the Roman Catholic church and Islam, both claiming a billion-plus adherents under the strictly limited leadership of men. Doubt the validity of that claim? Just watch the inspiring, subversive twists and turns of faith-filled aspirations rising in young women through the hour-long documentary, “The Light in Her Eyes.” Watching these girls and women, you can envision how dramatically Islam could move further toward compassion and human rights, especially for the 500-million-plus Muslim women and girls around the world who are shackled by traditional cultural expectations.

If you’re not aware of the oppressive weight of Islam on millions of women, filmmakers Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix punctuate their documentary with brief film clips from various Muslim televangelists of iron-clad fundamentalism. Women only have four purposes in life, one Islamic televangelist preaches: Reproduction, childcare, caring for a husband and keeping house. Women have no right to an education, another bearded preacher rants on TV.

That’s the context within which Houda al-Habash has become a fearless pioneer for women’s education and women’s rights. She’s a brilliant strategist—teaching girls and their mothers in a number of Syrian mosques that they must become tough, smart, courageous advocates for Muslim women. That includes wearing the hijab or head scarf. Houda teaches her classes: Think of putting on your hijab like proudly flying the flag of our faith, proclaiming ourselves as proud women who are true representatives of Islam.

In fact, a large portion of up-scale Syrian women (and women in many Muslim countries) don’t dress in such conservative styles. The filmmakers themselves did not wear head scarves (at least not in production photos on their website). So, Houda’s absolute insistence that her pupils wear the hijab seems like a confusing message. In one sequence within this documentary, Houda is interviewed by a female journalist in Damascus who dresses without a head scarf. This young professional challenges Houda’s mixed message of women’s rights coupled with a return to traditional Islamic memorization of scriptures and a requirement of scarves for women in all public settings.

Here is part of that exchange …

Syrian Journalist: When my mother was in the university, most women didn’t wear hijab. When I went to university, 90 percent of women wore hijab.

Houda: I don’t think this trend is restricted to Syria. I believe there’s an Islamic revival worldwide.

Journalist: The more religious the environment is in Syria, the more unacceptable it becomes for women to work.

Houda: But not because of religiosity. You have to be precise. It’s because of extremism. The truth is: Islam doesn’t prevent women from working.

Journalist: Secular people feel isolated because of the growing religious nature of society in Syria. A lot of people see religiosity as close-mindedness or extremism. They feel threatened by it. What do you say to them?

Houda: They should not be afraid. If I’m a religious person, it doesn’t mean that I am claiming to have more rights. I’m just a woman teaching other women, counseling them in their studies.

That’s an understatement, of course!

Enas and Houda al-Habash studying the Quran together.Houda knows exactly what she is doing. She is casting herself as every bit as Islamic as the angry male imams. She’s absolutely spotless in her dress and her mode of teaching. But her heart is firmly fixed on seeing her own university-aged daughter, Enas, and many other young women become what she describes as “world class” teachers of Islam themselves.

Imagine what would happen in the Catholic church if there suddenly was a feminist pope? Imagine what would happen in Islam if there suddenly was a new generation of strictly schooled women who able to pull their own proof texts from the Quran in debates with the bearded old men?

As a journalist, I have reported from the Middle East, Europe, North America and Asia—including visits to all kinds of Muslim schools in every setting imaginable. I’ve reported from remote villages in Bangladesh where the only young Muslims being taught the traditional memorization of the Quran are boys. And, in many impoverished regions like Bangladesh, that’s all these boys get—Quran morning, noon and night for years. No science. No literature. No other languages.

However, I’ve also traveled to other pioneering Muslim schools around the world where—just as Houda is doing—girls are encouraged to learn both secular subjects and to memorize the Quran in the same way the most fortunate boys are educated. A few years ago, I visited one such private school in Indonesia where thousands of girls had an identical curriculum to their male classmates. Houda knows what she is talking about when she refers to her work as part of a worldwide Islamic revival among women.

In “The Light in Her Eyes,” watch carefully for the many girls and women who show up in the film talking about how their studies of the Quran with Houda parallel their secular studies. One woman tells us that she was a high-school dropout, destined to keep house for the rest of her life, until she encountered Houda. Now, she has advanced so far that she is majoring in Arabic literature at the university level—as well as learning her Quran by heart.

But Big Questions Remain: This entire film was shot before the uprising that now is tearing apart Syrian society and killing thousands. The PBS version of the film, which is only 51 minutes long, ends with texts explaining that Houda has safely fled Syria with her family. She hopes to return and restart her classes for girls after the revolution is resolved. That’s one big question. Is this film a snapshot of a vanished idea? Or can Houda return and re-establish her schools? Another big question is: What’s in the rest of the documentary? The actual film is 87 minutes long—so PBS is giving us only a little more than half of the movie. Visit the filmmakers’ website, where you can sign up to be informed when a DVD version of the entire film becomes available.

Care to Watch a Preview of ‘The Light in Her Eyes’?

PBS POV provides the following preview of this documentary. Click the video screen below. The clip begins with a short commercial message related to PBS. (NOTE: If you don’t see a video screen below, then click here to re-load this story and the video.)

Watch The Light in Her Eyes – Trailer on PBS. See more from POV.



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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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