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(cover picture) Meltzer, Julia & Laura Nix
2012 The Light in Her Eyes. New York: Cinema Guild.

Notes: DVD, 87 minutes
Reviewed 10 Nov 2013 by:
Edith Szanto <edith.szanto@gmail.com>
American University of Iraq, Sulaimani
Medium: Film/Video
Subject
Keywords:
Al-Habash, Houda
Girls - Education - Syria
Women educators - Syria
Islamic religious education - Syria

ABSTRACT:    The documentary film, Light in Her Eyes, depicts a conservative Muslim women's movement in Syria.



<i>The Light in Her Eyes is a religious metaphor for female Muslim piety and it is the title of a documentary film about Houda al-Habash, a Syrian female Sunni religious leader, and her students. The film begins by showing a group of women chatting and their daughters playing as they enter Masjid al-Zahra, a mosque in eastern Damascus, excited about starting summer courses. Al-Habash's two-month long summer Qur'an course, which she used to organize annually up until 2011, frames the documentary. On the one hand, such summer courses are a distinctly modern phenomenon. On the other hand, al-Habash emphasizes her 'traditionalism.' Though memorizing the Qur'an is a relatively recent practice among women in Syria, she justifies her endeavor by noting that it can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad. Scenes depicting al-Habash at home and at various mosques are juxtaposed by short clips wherein conservative male clerics decry any form of women’s participation in public life. Al-Habash, who encourages young Muslim women to work and study, points out that the problem is fundamentalism and ignorance, rather than religiosity. Al-Habash further distinguishes between fundamentalism and tradition, the latter of which she upholds and defends.

By speaking with her husband and children who support her work, the documentary portrays al-Habash as a devoted wife and mother who does not forget her family in her quest to spread religious education among Muslim girls in Syria. For her, tradition and religiosity mandate that women dedicate themselves to their families and submit to their husbands. However, this conservative attitude toward gender roles does not mean that women cannot find personal fulfillment through secular and religious education, as well as working outside of their homes. Education, both secular and religious, is necessary according to al-Habash for building loving and supportive homes, as well as stable and peaceful societies. For her, conservative Sunnism is logical, intrinsically modern if understood properly, and supportive of women's education and their freedom to work. As proof of this, a 37-year-old single woman from a village narrates how she was able to gain respect in the eyes of her community by becoming a religious teacher in al-Habash's movement. The purpose of education, hence, is to maintain a patriarchal social order while providing unmarried women a means to attain respectability through piety.

Though Houda al-Habash generally advocates conservative family values, she is also portrayed as moderate and charismatic. Her students range from kindergarteners to university students. As part of her summer courses, the girls visit swimming pools in the country side. They have sleep-over parties, birthday parties, and celebrations for girls who decide to wear the headscarf. The girls are shown laughing. Al-Habash's brand of Islam, in other words, does not lack fun. Moreover, al-Habash is depicted as nurturing and empathetic. When she goes shopping with her twenty year old daughter Enas, who is studying Political Science at the American University of Sharjah, al-Habash encourages Enas to buy fashionable dresses. In another scene, a young girl asks al-Habash whether it is a sin for a girl to take off the scarf once she has begun wearing it. Al-Habash answers that if this takes place before puberty, it is not a problem. After puberty, however, women should wear hijab, which al-Habash describes as a sign of Islam and a protection for women. Al-Habash's religious authority exceeds simply teaching students how to memorize the Qur’an, as she elucidates the Qur’an and Islamic laws pertaining to women and family. For instance, when a mother and daughter come to visit they ask whether or not they are obliged to return all of the gifts, including the food items, which the girls' ex-fiance brought them before the engagement was broken off. Al-Habash explains that since they were religiously married (as part of the engagement), the girl and her family are not required to return the gifts because they constituted her dowry.

Not all of al-Habash's students become educated secular and religious leaders. Some marry right after graduating from high school. "It is our tradition to marry off girls while they are still young," a mother tells the camera. Nevertheless, al-Habash tries to instill a sense of agency in her students. In the final ceremony that concludes her summer course, she reminds them that they have choices and rights within the tradition. The documentary ends with the note that Houda al-Habash and her family left Syria following the start of the Syrian Revolution. Her school is closed and will remain shut until she can return. Viewers are left wondering what the future holds.

There are two issues to note with regard to the documentary. First, it equates memorizing the Qur'an with education, insight, and spirituality. Are they necessarily the same? Second, while the audience is introduced to al-Habash's children, husband, and mother, the documentary omits her brother, Dr. Muhammad al-Habash, who is an important parliamentarian and a leading figure in Syrian Sunnism. A liberal thinker and writer, he founded the Islamic Studies Institute in Damascus and was a student of the late Syrian grand-mufti Ahmad Kuftaro. Al-Habash has undoubtedly benefitted from her brother’s status and activities. Notably, al-Habash is by far more conservative with regard to women’s issues than her brother. Hilary Kalmbach convincingly argues that al-Habash would probably lose her religious authority if she were less conservative (2008: 51).

In conjunction with texts such as Kalmbach's prize-winning article on Houda al-Habash or Saba Mahmood's ground breaking Politics of Piety, the documentary can be pedagogically useful for scholars teaching undergraduate courses in Anthropology, Religious Studies, or International Studies. As a sympathetic portrayal of conservative Sunnism, it offers much to discuss and ponder. It may even offer a helpful entry into discussions about religion and the Arab Spring.

References

Kalmbach, Hilary 2008 Social and Religious Change in Damascus: One Case of Female Islamic Religious Authority. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35 (1), 37-57.

Mahmood, Saba 2005 Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2005.