In 1982, when she was just 17 years old, Houda al-Habash opened the doors to her Koran school for women and girls at the Al-Zahra Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Houda is representative of a pioneering generation of women in the Middle East who have begun to study Islam within the mosque like their fathers, uncles and brothers — a trend that is reshaping the region. We made the film because despite the influence of schools like Houda’s, stories about them are still rare.
In the film, inside her organized and lively school, Houda teaches her students about women’s rights within Islam and encourages them to take their secular education seriously. She and her students are engaged in a debate about women’s roles in the modern world, similar to the debates we find in our own culture. In the end, we were more compelled by the similarities than the differences in that debate.
The Syria we left when we finished shooting in November 2010 has drastically changed because of the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Houda is no longer teaching at her school; like many Syrians with the financial means, she and her family left the country to live in the Arabian Peninsula. Houda’s daughter, Enas, has said, “A light has gone out in our community,” because it is no longer safe to go to the mosque. It is impossible to know what will happen in Syria, but Houda certainly gave her students a foundation of faith and discipline to face the challenges before them.
This Op-Doc is adapted from The Light in Her Eyes, a feature-length documentary about Houda al-Habash.
Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix are the directors and producers of The Light in Her Eyes, which will be broadcast on the PBS series POV. Ms. Meltzer’s work has been exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and the Sharjah Biennial. Ms. Nix’s work includes directing the feature documentary Whether You Like It or Not and producing The Yes Men Fix the World.