“The world is in turmoil,” observes 20-year-old Enas al-Khaldi, a Qu’ran student in Damascus. “There’s terrorism and a sheikh is talking about how thick a woman’s socks should be!” Enas and her classmates describe their education as crucial to their futures, as well as Syria’s. “Before, a woman was a prisoner in her own home,” another girl says. “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.”
The girls’ understanding of history and enthusiasm for their future are at the center of The Light in Her Eyes. Filmed before the protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March 2011, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix’s documentary — airing as part of PBS’ POV series on TV and online — offers a glimpse at the thin line some Muslim women must walk. It also shows how Enas came by her commitment, namely, her mother, Houda Al-Habash. A preacher who runs a school for girls, Houda remembers, “When I was growing up, in my religious school, there were only four or five girls who had memorized the Book of God. Now there are thousands.” This despite a continuing effort by conservative clerics to suppress women’s education, efforts made visible here in a series of video pronouncements: “If a woman does as the prophet says, then she should stay home as much as possible,” or again, “Reading, for women, it is not required for them at all.”
In resisting such attempts to keep women ignorant, Houda advances women and girls’ rights in ways that are decidedly different from those of Western feminists. Persistent, upbeat, and determined, she’s supported by her husband Samir Al-Khaldi. “I got engaged to Houda without knowing her” he offers, “I told her that in Islam, love comes after marriage.” So too, apparently, varieties of enlightenment. Samir encourages her to hold classes, to teach other teachers, to maintain standards of quality. She, in turn, encourages her students to think about wearing the veil (“Wearing a hijab is a woman’s right, her choice,” she says, “There’s no need to coerce yourself, because it’s a divine order”). She will miss Enas, Houda says, as her daughter is headed to university soon. They’re clearly close, whether they’re shopping at the mall, studying together or praying. They can’t anticipate the uprising that will disrupt their lives — as the film notes in an epigraph, Houda’s school has been closed — but they never doubt their course.