A few decades ago, many Muslim countries went through a period of secularization. That was when women took off their veils and began having public functions and visible social lives. Two generations later, women are leaving behind their grandmother’s and mother’s fights for gender equality and human rights, embracing Islam more strongly than before, and wear the veil as a sign of identity. They do it by choice or because of social pressure.
For the contemporary Muslim woman, old models might give a sense of identity. But the society she belongs to often finds answers for its social problems by reinterpreting and re-enacting those old models. This leaves space for abuse and on many occasions she is treated as a second-class citizen. So many contemporary Arab women are now divided between religion and personal ambition, between old customs and modern aspirations in a constant search for a sustainable identity. I believe that she’s not a victim and doesn’t need any special protection. She needs to have the time, space and strength to decide by herself who she wants to be.
The documentaries discussed below portray this Arab woman, in search of herself, rejecting oppression as tradition and also rejecting the artificial line between belief and public life. This woman needs to be seen and heard and these films raise some relevant questions about her quest.
The Light in Her Eyes tells the story of Houda al-Habash. She founded a Qur’an school for girls in Damascus when she was only 17. But that’s not all. Houba doesn’t only teach the Qur’an, she also gives her students a sense of freedom. She teaches them that they don’t have to choose between living a life according to Islam and having their personal ideals. Her words touch upon a part of the Qur’an that is often ignored or altered in Muslim societies: women’s rights.
The film was directed by Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix before the recent uprising in Syria. We see Houda in the Mosque with her students, telling them that the Qur’an does not require them to cover their faces and that a woman can be president if she wants. She encourages them to study, to work, to have public lives. “Muslims themselves, they deprived women of everything. Even the right to learn. This is ignorance, which has nothing to do with religion. ” she says.
But her teachings do not suggest a step away from having a family, from being a wife and a mother. Houda al-Habash is a full role model and she embodies everything she teaches. She’s not only a preacher but also a family woman, she takes care of her husband and their two children. Her own daughter is a modern young Arab girl. Enas wears the hijab, she is highly educated, speaks fluent English and she is about to go study abroad. Religion is essential to her life and at the same time she lives her life in the modern world. “The society in which we live is changing. How is Islam helping us adapt to this society?” she asks.