DAMASCUS - Known as a bastion of secularism in the Arab world, a new film about one of thousands of religious schools in Syria shows a rise of religiosity in the conservative society.
"My experience was Syria and there is this religious population that's growing, director Julia Meltzer told Reuters at the Dubai International Film Festival, which ended this weekend.
And that's a story that needs to be told about moderate Islam and it's a story we don't see, especially in the West."
Meltzer and Laura Nix co-directed a documentary The Light In Her Eyes about the spread of religious schools in secular Syria.
The film features Houda al-Habash, who opens up the mosque and school she runs where hundreds of teenage girls, sent there by their parents, spend the summer learning to memorize the Qur'an.
The students also take religious study classes that conclude with most of them taking to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.
Houda lectures the girls that the veil is an Islamic duty that God intended as protection and which for Houda is part of a process of empowering girls to play an active role in society as Muslims.
"The flag is the symbol of the state, but the hijab is the symbol of Islam ... you have not been faithful to the symbol," she tells the girls in one of her group pep talks.
"God made the hijab an obligation to protect women from inappropriate looks and preserve her for her husband."
She also tells the girls in another talk: "Does a woman have a right to be the president of the republic? Yes. Don't let go your mind, or your choice" -- an opinion that is the subject of dispute among Islamist political movements today.
The documentary's directors said they wanted to show that the Islamic revival depicted in the film reflects the mainstream in Syria today and should be seen as progressive in many respects.
"What I saw in that educational environment (university) was that people did not arrive on time, teachers didn't really seem to take things seriously," Meltzer said.
"In contrast to that world, going to Houda's mosque was a really eye-opening, and complex, experience for me where girls were encouraged to read."
Syria has been gripped by unrest since activists began protesting for democratic changes in one of the most tightly run police states in the region.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad argues that it is facing an armed insurrection by Islamists.
Assad's Baath party has relied heavily on his Alawite sect to run the security, military and other key arms of the state.
The film includes scenes of girls whose families have sent them to the school deciding to take the veil after gentle persuasion in Houda's lectures and one-on-one discussion.
"I'm not convinced yet, but I'll get used to it," one girl tells Houda before her veiling ceremony.
"It protects women, it shows you're a Muslim person," Houda says, adding: "No one can force anyone."
The camera brings out many of the contradictions facing the young women.
In the documentary, the girls discuss the hair styles of television presenters and visit fashion shops which they leave after concluding they could never wear the fancy dresses on display.
Satellite channels subject them to a barrage of entertainment programming which Houda says is hindering their ability to focus on learning the Qur'an.
The overwhelming impression is of happy growing teenagers, however.
Houda's daughter Enas, a forthright 20-year-old studying at the American University in Sharjah, one of the more conservative cities of the United Arab Emirates, says she sees education as affording a chance to engage in da`wa that people of her mother's generation did not have.
"I can see I can serve Islam by studying politics or economy. My mum didn't have that," she says in fluent American-accented English.
The film's finale involves a celebration with the girls who have succeeded in memorizing the entire Muslim holy book dressed as if for a wedding in white dresses and tiaras.They sing a song from which the title is derived: "Now we are veiled, there is light in our eyes."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net