Preach: Female Spiritual Leader in Syria

Before revolution erupted on Syrian streets, a quiet evolution was taking place among a group of devout Muslim women in Damascus. A female Muslim scholar was teaching women and girls lessons from the Koran at a religious school she founded and, while doing so, encouraging them to get a secular education and pursue leadership roles.

 The teacher, Houda al-Habash, is the subject of a new feature documentary, “The Light in Her Eyes,” which focuses on al-Habash’s efforts to let women and girls study the Koran formally and outside their homes, where they might otherwise be confined.

 A former Fulbright scholar who lived in Syria for a year and a half, filmmaker Julia Meltzer found al-Habash an intriguing mix – both progressive and traditional, doctrinaire and warm – but always compelling. Her film will air on PBS’s Point of View on July 19:

Q: Can you describe the work that Houda does?

A: Houda runs the women’s side of a mosque in Damascus. It’s a religious school, like Sunday school. Girls come during the summer and classes during the school year. It’s not a school that’s full time. Also, it’s not just girls: the summer school is mostly school-age, 8- to 20- year-olds. But she also works with women in 30s through 60s. So it’s really like a women and girls’ center.

Q: What’s unusual about what she’s doing?

A: Generally, Islamic scholars are male. Most of the teachers are men, and boys get more encouraged than girls do. Recently there has been a movement of women studying Koran and larger tenants of Islam, learning the laws and scholarship of faith. There are women who are called sheikahs…. Actually is this movement that started in Syria, a movement of women studying with other women.

It used to happen more within the home. What’s unusual about Houda is she really encourages students to take their secular education seriously. She says that is a part of worshiping God is being educated and not just learning about Islam.

Q: What else is groundbreaking about her?

A: That’s something really interesting in her school, and she was one of the first Koranic schools for women in Damascus. She established it in 1982. What I think people don’t understand is that women and girls from conservative families are not encouraged to leave the house much. A woman who is unmarried stays home and takes care of parents. What Houda’s mosque allows women to do is go to a place outside home and learn something and socialize and because they are going to the mosque, families that are traditional are more accepting. They say, “You’re going to be with teacher Houda, that’s okay.” That allows these girls a particular amount of freedom they might not have otherwise. Certainly I met many older women who said, “If I did not come to the mosque my life would be miserable.” I met women whom Houda had encouraged to go back and finish elementary and high school educations. It gave them a sense of themselves and pride…

Q: What surprises does the film offer?

A: I think people would be surprised to learn that young women are actively choosing to practice their faith in a more pious way and they are modern people getting educated at universities. People’s perception is generally that … even if Islam is not such a bad religion, that it’s oppressive toward women and girls. I think people would be surprised to see a character like Houda’s daughter, who is very knowledgeable in her faith but also studying international relations and political science…. The women at Houda’s mosque are encouraged to lead public lives.

Q: Has she faced adversity for her beliefs?

A: What we know here about traditional or conservative Islam is generally what’s practiced in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. Yes, there might be some resistance, but Syria is not Saudi Arabia.

Q: So what’s Houda like?

A: She wears the role of being a leader in her society in a very interesting way. At times she’s a little bit intimidating. She also is very warm and kind and a loving teacher. That’s an interesting combination you don’t find so often in people like her. Most often women like Houda in their positions are strict and rigid. She has a side of her that’s very humble and that comes from her beliefs in God. She sees herself as in service to a higher power and she’s not bigger than that power.

Q: How did you meet Houda and gain access to the mosque?

A: I lived in Syria as Fulbright fellow for two years and taught at the University of Damascus in the journalism program. I met Houda through a friend and shot some stuff in the mosque in ‘05 and thought, “This is really interesting, we never get to see women doing what they do in the mosque.” She said to get permission from the government. They didn’t say they no, they just never replied. The next summer she said, “Just come and shoot with us.”

Q: The film really brings you into intimate settings.

A: What was striking was the quality of people’s relationships, just how people are physical and warm with each other. People have a great sense of humor and are not rigid and listening to rules. They’re warm and playful and I wanted the film to have that feel…

Q: Where do Houda’s views place her in Syrian society?

A: Houda is a moderate. She’s within conservative Islam, traditional and yet she’s encouraging girls to leave the house and to lead public lives. That puts her in the spectrum, more on the open-minded side of conservatives.

Q: I understand her family has left Syria. Was it because of her politics?

A: She left Syria because it was dangerous. Anyone who has some means is looking to protect their family. She’s now in the Emirates.

Q: And where does that leave her school and what’s the outlook for women there?

A: The outlook for women as a result of this conflict is really bad. They have very few options; many schools will be closed in the fall, and there’s not a lot of work… Now that Houda’s mosque has been closed, they’ve lost their community. A light has gone out, a place they had sustenance from.

Note: “The Light in Her Eyes” was produced and directed by Laura Nix and Julia Meltzer.

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