Thirty years ago, at the age of 17, Houda al- Habash, a conservative Muslim preacher, founded a Quran school for girls in Damascus, Syria. Every summer since then, her female students have supplemented their secular schooling with a rigorous study of Islam.
Houda’s efforts illustrate a complex — and for some audiences, unexpected — aspect of the current Islamic revival. Under the banner of restoring Islamic traditions in modern life, women are claiming space within the mosque, a place historically dominated by men. Using Quranic teachings, Houda encourages her students to pursue higher education, jobs and public lives, while remaining committed to an interpretation of Islam that includes cultural traditions that encourage some traditional gender roles, such as marrying young and serving one’s husband.
Shot just before the eruption of Syria’s current uprising, The Light in Her Eyes ventures into a world rarely seen by Westerners, yet echoes other faith-based movements throughout the Arab world. It offers an extraordinary portrait of a leader who challenges the women of her community to live according to Islam, without giving up their autonomy. In the process, it confronts viewers with questions about the meaning of women’s empowerment within the parameters of different cultures and experiences.
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