“A woman is a school. If you teach her, you teach an entire generation.”
Last week, Film Forward, a U.S. Department of State sponsored initiative that brings acclaimed movies from the Sundance Film Festival to cities all over the world, hosted a showing of The Light in Her Eyes in Amman. It is the story of Houda al-Habash, a woman who runs a Qur’an summer school for girls in Damascus. The program is rigorous, the professors are meticulous—they coach the girls on everything from pronunciation of the words to conveying the heart behind the message. Houda is herself an expert on Islam; her goal is to imbue a sense of knowledge of the divine within her impressionable students. She wants to teach them piety, the true meaning of worship, and their rights within their faith. In the film, a stark contrast is made between the teachings of Islam and “customs and traditions”—which, in the Arab world, have become “a cage that imprisons us all.”
I initially approached the film with trepidation. I did not know what to expect in a documentary about a Muslim preacher and her Qur’an school for girls. I say this delicately, as an Arab Christian, it often feels like Islam and being Arab are inextricably linked. The majority of contemporary portrayals of life as an Arab (or Arab-American, in my case) rarely address the multiplicity that comes with having roots in this storied region. They fail to recognize that culture and place are not tantamount to any faith—one characterizes and defines, the other transcends. When my family members pray, we use the word Allah, too. I was selfishly worried about damage to my own self-identity. I wondered if I would leave the screening with a heightened, discouraged sense of how the world sees the aggregate Middle East.
Instead, I left with a profound appreciation of the honest storytelling within the film.
Houda is human. She is neither a stereotypical submissive Muslim woman, nor will viewers find within her a champion for western values and ideals. She encourages her female students, yes. But Houda does not fit within the archetypal lines of a feminist, in a religious context or otherwise. She stresses the importance of being a good wife and mother, she tells the camera that if her husband finds himself at home one day, it would not be acceptable for her to venture out and go to work. I found myself yo-yoing between exasperation at her antiquated values and swells of inspiration when I witnessed the power she entrusted to her young students. In a world where a path towards religious devotion (for any woman, in almost any Abrahamic faith) is seen as synonymous with a walk towards a cessation of freedom, it is refreshing to witness Houda’s insistence that study of the Qur’an is empowering for girls.
“For a woman, the Qur’an is protection,” she firmly states. “The Qur’an can teach a women her rights so she is not misled in a culture-based society who might not value these rights.” Houda tells the wide-eyed girls staring up at her at the end of the summer that they are free. She leaves them with a sense of agency within their faith that is too often absent within conservative spheres of Islam.
The documentary was filmed right before the uprising in Syria, which adds an element of abject sadness to the story. As the screen fades to black at the end, we find out Houda and her family no longer live in Damascus, they have moved to the Gulf. We know that the city no longer looks the way it was captured in the film. We wonder if the resplendent young girls we witnessed laughing and playing are even still alive. Our hearts break as the credits tell us what we already know: this story is no longer, it is frozen in time. During the question-and-answer session after the film, Director Laura Nix fought back tears—“I hope one day, you can go home,” she said to the myriad of Syrians in the audience. Person after person thanked her for capturing and sharing this story. Audience members of all faiths and backgrounds spoke about their views on The Light in Her Eyes. Some were critical, some had only lavish praise. All were grateful.