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.
Houda (right) talking with her daughter (left), Enas, about how she started work as a preacher. Credit:Laura Nix.
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.