In a courtyard off a busy street in Damascus, Syria, boisterous girls run and play before class starts in the women’s side of Al-Zahra mosque. Inside the mosque, preacher Houda al-Habash teaches the Qur’an, educating women and girls about their religion, and their rights, within their faith. Julia Meltzer lived in Damascus in 2005, and from the moment she first entered Al-Zahra mosque, she recognized what a unique place it was. Houda’s school was well-organized and energized — filled with women and girls supporting each other in their studies.
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. 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. However, the school also emphasizes the importance of modesty and piety. These women and girls are following “the straight path” of Islam, because they want to live according to its structure, rules and ethics.
Houda’s version of women’s rights doesn’t look like ours. We were raised in the West by feminist mothers, grew up attending marches for reproductive freedom and identify as third-wave feminists. But the deeper we dove into Houda’s community, the more we realized how much our guidelines for judging women’s liberation and autonomy were informed by the parameters of our culture and experiences. As filmmakers, we believe it’s our job to understand our subjects, and to tell truthful stories about their worlds. So, while we witnessed Houda encouraging girls to take their secular education seriously, we also recognized that her primary mission is to teach her interpretation of conservative Islam, which includes cultural traditions like wearing hijab and serving the husband — actions we would question in our own culture.
We were raised in a primarily secular culture, so it was challenging at first to see how a religious education could be a constructive influence for women. We come from faiths different from that of Houda and her students; one of us is Jewish and the other has a Catholic parent and a Protestant parent. Respectively, we went to Hebrew school in Los Angeles and Sunday school in upstate New York. We each studied the holy books of our traditions, and were expected to learn the tenets of our religions to become adult members of our congregations. The longer we spent in Houda’s mosque, the more parallels we saw between our own religious studies and the program Houda was directing, despite our major cultural differences.
This was the most difficult project either of us has ever undertaken. Both Syria and the community of conservative Muslim women are intensely private and suspicious of outsiders. 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 the shoot required many trips to Syria, which we usually entered through Lebanon because it had more lax border control at the time. We made the film without the permission of the Syrian government; every day we faced the possibility of being shut down and having our footage confiscated.
However, the risk for Houda, her family and her students was much greater — the school itself could have been shut down by state security for engaging with American filmmakers. Today, Syria is on the brink of a full-blown civil war, sparked by a popular uprising against the regime. Houda and her family have left the country, and the school will remain closed until she is able to return. The Light in Her Eyes completed photography in November 2010, four months before the uprising began. It captures a moment of stability in the country that will not exist again for many years to come.
We hope audiences will gain a greater understanding of conservative Islam by watching the film. 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 also 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.
— Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, Directors/Producers