An early scene in the new documentary “The Light in Her Eyes” shows female Syrian preacher Houda al-Habash making the case to Nawara Mahoud, a secular female journalist, that Islam itself doesn’t restrict women from learning or threaten the rights of non-religious people like Mahoud, but conceding that more conservative or extremist Syrians may.

It’s an interesting interaction, with each woman choosing her words carefully, perhaps from mistrust or a desire not to offend. The more “modern” Mahoud listens politely, but is clearly perplexed by the central contradiction of a conservative female cleric defending a belief system that their society utilizes to limit women’s rights. And al-Habash’s protestation to the contrary involves evoking such a delicate balance of reason and faith that its vulnerability to less rational distinctions is glaring.

That tension between al-Habash’s independence and her place in traditional Syrian society is at the heart of “The Light in Her Eyes,” which screens at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Portland Public Library’s free Summer Documentary Film Series.

The tension carries over into her home life: Her husband of 20 years, a soft-spoken middle-aged man, explains that he supports his wife’s work, but adds with matter-of-fact condescension that women should know their place.

And despite al-Habash’s insistence that her 20-year-old daughter Enas believes as she does, the film gradually reveals that Enas is taking her mother’s example of independent thought and expanded choices to heart as she quietly distances herself from her mother’s more conservative beliefs.

There’s an inescapable contradiction at work here as, on the one hand, al-Habash’s difficult, courageous struggle to teach Syrian women contrasts with the fact that what she so fervently wants them to learn are fundamentalist tenets explicitly confirming their second-class status.

She’s clearly a good teacher, warm and encouraging but unafraid to take her students, and even other teachers, to task for not applying themselves. But, again, it’s undeniably unnerving as she inculcates smiling young girls in Quran passages stating that nonbelievers will go to hell and talking about Judgment Day.

Like all good documentaries, “The Light in Her Eyes” raises more questions than it answers. For all her bravery and good intentions, watching al-Habash’s fundamentalist teaching often made me as uncomfortable as watching the guileless American kids being browbeaten into conservative Christianity by adult counselors in the documentary “Jesus Camp.”

That being said, it’s hard not to be on al-Habash’s side when the film keeps showing conservative (male) clerics on TV proclaiming that the only duties God created women for are to “reproduce, raise the children and take care of her husband” or that, as one flatly states, women who seek education are bad mothers.

Appearing as they do interspersed throughout the story of one woman’s struggle to redefine the place of women in Syrian society, these decidedly unnuanced declarations of misogyny provide an ominous undertone to the film.

Unlike al-Habash’s thoughtful attempts to define her position as a woman of faith, the film (and, sadly, recent events in Syria) make it unnervingly clear that there are forces in her society that make no such nice distinctions.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.


filed under: