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Syrian Girls Move Front and Center in the Mosque, Learning the Qur’an From a Woman’s Perspective in POV’s ‘The Light in Her Eyes,’ Thursday, July 19, 2012 on PBS
For 30 years, Houda al-Habash Has Piously Taught the Qur’an to Syrian Girls — Braving Criticism and Challenging Tradition by Charting a New Path for Muslim Women
Produced in Association with American Documentary | POV
“This wonderful documentary will be surprising for many. . .” — Kamran Pasha, The Huffington Post
Houda al-Habash, the subject of the new documentary The Light in Her Eyes, challenges many stereotypes about Muslims. In Damascus, the diverse and cosmopolitan capital of Syria — roiled now by uprisings — Habash is a religiously observant wife and mother who wears the hijab head covering. Yet she is also the woman who, going against tradition in her conservative culture, decided to become an Islamic preacher at the precocious age of 17 by opening a Qur’an school for girls in a downtown mosque.
Her persistence over 30 years in teaching the Qur’an to young girls challenges conservative male clerics, some of whom preach that “regarding women’s prayers . . . the Prophet said, ‘Their homes are better for them.'” However, Habash believes Islam demands that women be educated in all areas and insists that education is itself a form of worship.
Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix’s The Light in Her Eyes has its national broadcast premiere on Thursday, July 19, 2012, at 10 p.m. during the 25th anniversary season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). POV continues on Thursdays at 10 p.m. through Oct. 25 and concludes the season with fall and winter specials. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking and two International Documentary Association Awards for Continuing Series.
Filmed on the eve of Syria’s “Arab Spring” protests, The Light in Her Eyes is a look at a popular movement that claims space for women in the mosque and calls for greater freedom for Muslim women. It is also a fascinating picture of modern Muslim society in the midst of a dramatic social transition–which does not always sit easily with Western ideas of progress. But throughout the Middle East, Muslim women are increasingly making the choice to be religious and live modern lives.
Houda al-Habash embodies these contradictions with remarkable ease. Warm, outgoing and articulate, she leads with a steely sense of purpose, and doesn’t fit the mold of an oppressed woman. The Light in Her Eyes constructs her portrait through vérité sequences of her teaching classes, counseling students and giving her fellow teachers pep talks at the girls’ summer school she has run since 1982. At home, she speaks freely about her ideas, especially with her 20-year-old daughter, Enas al-Khaldi, who is studying abroad. Says Khaldi, “I can see that I can serve Islam better if I study politics or if I study economics or media.” These sequences are supplemented by commentary from Habash’s husband and colleagues, punctuated by public denunciations of women’s education by male clerics.
“Before, a woman was a prisoner in her own home,” one student asserts. “There is a saying that a woman only goes two places–to her husband’s house, and then to her grave. This was a really dangerous thing. If a mother never learns, how can she teach the next generation? A woman is a school. If you teach her, you teach a generation.”
Habash takes great pains to make clear that she does not fundamentally disagree with the conservative Muslim view that a woman’s primary responsibilities are as a wife and mother. At home with her husband and children, she is every bit the observant and dutiful housewife. She just doesn’t believe these Islamic values are incompatible with women seeking education, jobs and the right to public lives. And she backs up this belief with teachings from the Qur’an and the argument that restrictions on women’s freedoms are cultural rather than Islamic.
The Light in Her Eyes is a fascinating portrait of an unconventional Muslim woman that also becomes an enlightening story for Westerners. Habash represents the new face of women’s leadership in Islam. Women like her are an indication that, if and when political freedom comes to places like Syria, the local definition of freedom will likely differ dramatically from its definition in the West.
“Most people don’t associate Islam with women’s rights, and that’s exactly what we found interesting about the Al-Zahra Mosque Qur’an School,” say filmmakers Meltzer and Nix. “Inside this community, we uncovered a lively debate about women’s roles as mothers, teachers, wives, workers, sisters and daughters. Houda insists that secular education is an integral part of worship, because it gives her students the tools to make decisions about their futures.
“This was the most difficult project either of us has ever undertaken. It took several years of return trips to Damascus to convince Houda to allow us to film in her mosque. Finally, in the summer of 2008, she agreed. We worked with a very small all-women crew, and we made the film without the permission of the Syrian government. The school itself could have been shut down by state security for engaging with American filmmakers.
“The act of women teaching each other about Islam is a key element of the religious revival taking place in the Middle East, and understanding that is crucial to understanding how the region is changing, especially through the Arab Spring. We hope audiences will welcome a view of contemporary Syria that is not solely defined by headlines and YouTube videos of the recent chaos and violence. While the uprising dominates Syria’s present moment, it is only one story of Syria’s people and its rich history.”
The Light in Her Eyes is a Clockshop production, produced in association with American Documentary | POV.
About the Filmmakers:
Julia Meltzer (Director, Producer)
Julia Meltzer is an artist and filmmaker living in Los Angeles. She founded and directs Clockshop, a nonprofit arts organization that produces public projects and documentaries. Her film and video work with David Thorne has been awarded prizes at the European Media Art Festival and the Rio de Janeiro Short Film Festival and has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, the Sharjah Biennial, the Toronto International Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Meltzer is a recipient of grants from Art Matters, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, the Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship, the John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and she was a senior Fulbright fellow in Damascus, Syria from 2005 to 2006. She received her bachelor’s degree from Brown University and her master of fine arts degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Meltzer is a fluent Spanish speaker and is proficient in the Levantine Arabic dialect.
Laura Nix (Director, Producer)
Laura Nix recently co-wrote California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown. Her nonfiction work has been shown on HBO and the History Channel, in addition to being distributed internationally on DVD. She is the writer/director of the narrative feature The Politics of Fur, which played in more than 70 film festivals internationally and won numerous awards, including the Grand Jury Award at Outfest. She produced the festival hit The Yes Men Fix the World, about the gonzo political activist duo of the title, and is currently producing their next film, The Yes Men Are Revolting.
Co-directors: Julia Meltzer, Laura Nix
Co-producers: Julia Meltzer, Laura Nix
Cinematographers: Anne Etheridge, Julia Meltzer
Editors: Monique Zavistovski, Nathaniel Fregoso
Running Time: 56:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
VP, Production & Programming: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
- World Premiere, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, 2011
- Official Selection, Dubai International Film Festival, 2011
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the desJardins/Blachman Fund and public television viewers. Funding for POV’s Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.
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