A Sensitive and Groundbreaking Look at Muslim Women’s Quest for Emancipation Through Islam
Through depiction of the daily practice of Islam within a circle of women in Damascus, The Light in Her Eyes shatters fantasy and stereotypes about the religion. However, this film is more than just a pedagogic documentary and uses empathy as a cinematic device to unveil the intimate side of the Muslim faith and reveal it to the viewer, as well as to shed light on the wider phenomenon of the Islamic revival, which raises collective and political issues. The filmmakers grasp an essential facet of Islam: its potential to aid in emancipation. This idea is quite new in cinema, especially in Syrian cinema. It is also a key aspect to understanding the current situation in Syria and in other countries in the Arab world that have witnessed uprisings since 2010.
Ambiguities of the Representation of Islam in Syrian Cinema
Syrian films dealing with Islam are rare. Despite the aesthetic and political boldness of Syrian films, it seems that Syrian filmmakers are not at ease with this subject. Most of them, like many intellectuals in the Arab world, are secular leftists who have often criticized popular forms of religion as backward and, therefore, incompatible with progressive ideology. A sequence of Omar Amiralay’s amazing first documentary film, Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1969), shows workers on one of the largest construction projects of the Hafez al-Assad era praying in silence. Shot at a low angle, the men look like ants. Time is suspended. A huge digger then lifts the soil as if it is sweeping away the praying men. In the inexorable movement towards progress, there is no room for God. This film is emblematic of the paradigm of progress and development prevailing throughout this post-colonial period and generating a fortuitous affinity between Baathism and other leftist trends. These ideologies also share a secular vision of the world. In Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1972), however, Amiralay harshly criticizes the loopholes of the Baathist development policy, and a mystical ceremony becomes an outlet for venting about the desperate and unfair conditions of Euphrates peasants.
After the dismantling of the U.S.S.R., progressive intellectuals in the Arab world had to find new points of reference. Some moved toward political Islam, but the majority turned toward liberal ideology based on forming a civil society and the advocacy of human rights. The liberal option maintains the position that Islam represents a potential threat. The only acceptable vision of Islam is thus politically neutral and universal. The film A Land For a Stranger (1997) by Samir Zikra, which reenacts some episodes in the life of the Muslim reformer Abdel-Rahman al-Kawakibi, complies with such a vision.
Kawakibi, known for his struggle against absolutism and obscurantism, is depicted as a national hero and a symbol of religious coexistence. The enlightened Islam he advocates can only be a part of a common Arab cultural heritage. In the specific context of Syria, talking publicly about Islam is a very touchy matter since the bloody episode in Hama. At the end of the 1970s, a wave of protest against the regime took a sectarian turn. The core of the protest was led by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama against a regime dominated by members of the Alawi community. In 1982, the Assad regime destroyed this city using heavy artillery, killing more than 20,000 people. Since that time, the pan-Arabist official discourse of the Baath Party has emphasized cultural — rather than religious — Islam as part of the Syrian identity. Seen through this lens, Islam becomes an expression of the religious fervor of the Arab and a vehicle for the propagation of Arab genius. The “politically correct” vision of Islam in the film is highlighted further by the negative caricature of the enemy of Abdel-Rahman al-Kawakibi, embodied by a coarse and loathsome sheikh versed in occultism who gets money from people by illicit means and sexually abuses women.
This particular representation of Islamist fundamentalism is widespread in Egyptian cinema, which systematically draws connections between fundamentalism and mental disorder, sexual frustration, corruption or terrorism. As Lina Khatib, author of “Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World” (2006), mentions, films criticizing fundamentalism aim to validate a national identity by ejecting the “wrong” forms of Islam out of the imagined community. The political aspects of Islam, unless seen through extremism and pathology, remain a blind spot. When Islam is viewed in relationship to society, the enslaved woman is the dominant narrative. Many films denounce patriarchy, pointing to Muslim conservatism as its source. Most of the films by Syrian filmmaker Mohammad Malas depict female characters as victims of their male relatives. In Dreams of the City (1984), we see the father of a young widow who prays and goes to the mosque as violent and tyrannical.
Without her husband to protect her, the woman is lost and left to her own devices. She cannot expect to have any social status and becomes the ideal target for all kinds of abuse. The same vision of women and Islam emerges in an even more caricatured vein in the Malas film Passion, released in 2005. Imen loves to sing and is a fan of legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Her husband and child are delighted by her secret passion. However, the other men in the extended family, depicted as conservative Muslims, do not understand her infatuation and grow suspicious of her behavior. They spy on her and become convinced that she is involved in an adulterous relationship. Rather than live in dishonor, they decide to do away with her.
Even though violent forms of patriarchy do exist in Middle Eastern societies, they do not sum up the status of Muslim women. In contrast to this (male) cinematographic point of view, in The Light in Her Eyes we see Muslim women acting and speaking for themselves.
Empathy As Cinematographic Device
It is a bit of a surprise that two American filmmakers have managed to offer an inner view of a phenomenon so geographically and culturally distant from them. Having lived in Syria for 10 years, I know how long it takes to gain people’s trust there. Shooting in a mosque or in people’s homes is far from easy. Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix’s approach to their subject is clearly grounded in long-term field work. Their thorough observation of the place and of the people they are shooting is palpable through the chronology of the film, the story it narrates and the space between the characters and the camera. Houda al-Habash, her daughter, Enas, and the female students and teachers of the Qur’an school are not depicted as distant “others”: They are women in a specific cultural context who live their religion fully. The eye of the camera shifts with a mix of complicity and deference that avoids any exotic voyeurism. The film reflects a kind of modesty: Its purpose is not to deliver a staggering statement, but to offer the viewer an in-depth and condensed insight into a lived experience. Of course, characters are sometimes performing, but most of the time we see reality as it routinely happens, which is a rare privilege in such a politically and socially compartmentalized context. This singular cinematographic device takes the heat out of the issue the film raises, unfolding it in all of its complexity.
To see women fighting for their autonomy through religion is thought-provoking. The reappropriation of the Qur’anic text by women is an essential aspect of the Islamic revival. Acquiring knowledge of their religion is part of a liberation process, since it helps them fight the strongly rooted social traditions that confine them to the private sphere. Houda al-Habash not only teaches Islam to her students but also encourages them to pursue their secular education. The film captures an ongoing process, displaying a form of modern and original thinking about the role of women within an Islamic framework. This process is all the more powerful and potentially democratic because it is rooted in faith. As The Light in Her Eyes shows, Habash’s summer program gathers women of all age and social backgrounds. The filmmakers tackle this phenomenon with no prior judgments. Instead, they raise questions. They use a story-within-a-story technique in two sequences in which Habash is interviewed by secular Syrian female journalists; there we can assume the filmmakers formulate their own questions. One of the journalists is worried about the Islamic revival occurring in Syria and indirectly expresses her feelings of discomfort and isolation. Habash, who appears to be surprised by the journalist’s question, simply answers that being pious does not mean having more rights than others. This story-within-a-story device confronts two different world views and also shows that they are not exclusive from one another.
Mosques As Sites of Contention
We also understand from the film that the mosque is a polyvalent space that can be used for prayer, learning, socializing and debating. We see how women reclaim their dignity and power in this specific space. Historically, the mosque was the premier public space in an Islamic city, the equivalent of the agora in an ancient Greek city. It also had an essential political function. In the contemporary Syrian political context, where the regime cannot tolerate any form of political freedom or criticism, the mosque has become the only potential public space for political expression. Not surprisingly, many of the early demonstrations witnessed in March 2011 took place in mosques after Friday prayer. These mosques operate as gathering spots for protestors, not all of whom are worshippers or even Muslims. In this way, mosques have been central to the process of reappropriation of the wider public space underlying the uprising. In an amateur video posted on YouTube on March 25, 2011, we see a demonstration in the famous Omayyad Mosque, located in the heart of Damascus. Then, demonstrators converge to the exit and progress to the square at Souk Hamidiyeh. Security forces shouting pro-regime slogans, some of them holding up pictures of Bashar al-Assad, try in vain to block the way. With the role of the mosque as a prominent vehicle for protest in the Syrian uprising, we witness how tradition and modernity meet to create a new civil order.
Women are full participants in this process. They also take to the streets despite harsh repression to ask for freedom and dignity.
They seem determined to be equally involved in Syria’s future. In the early months of the uprising, women activists organized a Friday protest to express their solidarity with those jailed and killed by the security forces. Women-only protests across the country have contributed to bringing news to the outside world about what is happening in Syria. These protests also discredit, in a very effective way, the official discourse that equates protesters with terrorists. Although shot before the uprising, The Light in Her Eyes has a powerful resonance with these events. It shows how Islam is deeply rooted in Syrian society and how it can constitute a factor of social and political emancipation. During protests, when men and women ask for the fall of Bashar al-Assad, they shout, “Allahu Akbar,” God is the greatest, meaning greater than the mundane and ephemeral dictator.
Cécile Boëx analyzed the relationship between Syrian cinema and politics for her Ph.D. She is now a post-doctoral researcher at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), associated with the CEIFR (Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religious Factors). She is currently working on YouTube videos posted by protestors and activists.