July 19, 2012 -- Most of us who have grown up in secular, Western society, says filmmaker Laura Nix, "have really only seen two narratives about Muslim women." There are the women who are being oppressed by Islam, the honor killings for instance, or the women who are rejecting their religion.
But a half dozen years ago, her friend and fellow filmmaker Julia Meltzer was living in Damascus, Syria's ancient capital city, on a Fulbright fellowship, and had a friend who was studying the Koran at a local mosque. Her teacher was a wife and mother of three named Houda al-Habash, who was teaching young girls the Koran during the summer months in a mosque. Meltzer, says Nix, "was struck by what a special place it was."
"What we found were women engaged in a complex debate about women's roles in society," said Nix. "By ages 10 or 12 the girls are memorizing the entire Koran, but they're also being taught that they should pursue their secular education. They're going to regular school throughout the year, studying all the subjects. But in the summer they're voluntarily going to study Koran, in the way that people here might go to Bible camp or Hebrew school."
Meltzer and Nix began filming in 2008 and finished in November 2010, shortly before the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East and hit Syria, where the regime has only grown more oppressive, and violence has escalated. "The Light in Her Eyes," which will be broadcast tonight on PBS, opens with girls dressed in bright striped T-shirts and red and pink dresses, a few wearing hijabs, running playfully about, then sitting on a carpet in a circle, giggling, fidgeting -- and learning the tenets of the Koran.
"What are the pillars of Islam?" a teacher asks. "No God but God; Mohammad is his prophet." Fidget. "Giving alms, fasting in Ramadan, performing pilgrimage if you can." Giggle, fidget.
The film is bright and colorful; summer breezes through the mosque's big windows fill the billowing yellow curtains. It hardly resembles a place that many Westerners traditionally think of when they think of a mosque, where "scary and bad ideas come from," says Nix. This one is "full of adorable little girls running around in cute pink dresses learning how to memorize something."
But it's one thing to allow girls to try out the latest gymnastic feat on the carpeting, it's quite another to allow Americans in to film. It took some time for Meltzer and Nix to convince their friend Houda to let them in with a camera. While Syria may have been "calm," in 2008 it was "still a highly repressive regime. When you work with Americans, you could be called in for questioning," said Nix. But "Houda is invested in the West's having a different message about Islam, and she saw this as an opportunity."
The hourlong film is one that continually overturns the stereotypical view people often have of Islam, and women's relationship to it. The camera follows its characters into their living rooms, where well-educated women debate their roles in society, laughing at and mocking the traditional dictate that women go out twice in their lives: First you leave your father's house to go to your husband's house; many years later you leave your husband's house to go to your grave.
The camera follows Al-Habash and daughter Enas home; it follows them to a shop at a swanky multilevel mall. They're wearing hijabs, in contrast to the sales clerk's polo Lacoste shirt. He shows them a sleeveless low-cut gown; people who wish to be more modest can add sleeves, he tells them.
Interspersed throughout the film is video of conservative clerics. One says, "Our Lord created four duties for women that no one can argue with: reproduce, raise the children, take care of her husband, take care of the house."
Al-Habash answers, "Education is a form of worship." Memorize the Koran, and you can't have a man telling you that the Koran says you are not to leave the house, that you are not to work. Knowledge is power. The first line of the Koran is about reading.
A group of girls don the hijab for the first time, as others chant, "Now we are veiled, there is light in our eyes."
On graduation day, the teacher, proud and forceful, tells her students to speak up if there's something in society they don't like, that they are free in their choices, free in their way of thinking, free in their faith. And yes, religious law does allow a woman to be president.
During the Arab Spring, in early 2011, Nix said that back in the U.S. she "obsessively watched what was happening in Egypt. Julia and I talked about it a lot. We thought, This won't happen in Syria. We couldn't imagine people would revolt because it's so repressive." It surprised her when Syrians began to protest, and how "people were and continue to be so brave and stand up to this regime," risking their lives "every time they step into the street."
At the end of the film, the viewer learns that one year into the uprising, the family has left the country and the mosque is closed. Nix's memories of Damascus are filled with superlatives: a striking, beautiful, ancient city with people who are warm, hospitable and gracious. And her memories of the mosque are of a "a hopeful place and an optimistic place. It was very warm and welcoming, vital and alive. That's different from how a lot of parts of Damascus feel. A lot of women [went] to the mosque to get out of the house."