DUBAI (Reuters) - A film about one of thousands of Koranic schools for girls in Syria has shocked some Syrians but impressed others with the implication that one of the bastions of Arab secularism has become a deeply religious society.
In "The Light In Her Eyes," Houda al-Habash 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 Koran and take religious study classes that conclude with most of them taking to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.
The documentary's directors, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, said they wanted to show that the conservatism depicted in the film reflects the mainstream in Syria today and should be seen as progressive in many respects.
"My experience was Syria and there is this religious population that's growing 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," said Meltzer, who taught journalism at Damascus University in 2005 and 2006.
Speaking to Reuters at the Dubai International Film Festival which ended this weekend, she said that this Islamist community is more organized in many respects than state institutions.
"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."
Houda lectures the girls that the veil is an Islamic duty -- a view that many Muslims would dispute -- 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."
However, she also tells them 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.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has equivocated on whether women could rise the top positions in the state, while the leader of the Ennahda movement that won elections this year in Tunisia -- another bastion of Arab secularism in the post-colonial era -- says even non-Muslims could occupy such posts.
The directors splice the documentary with short segments from conservative preachers who argue on television that Muslim women should stay at home, avoid education and not work at all.
This debate between different visions of correct Islamic conduct is far more significant in Syria today than the polemic between secularists and Islamists over the religious values, women and politics, Meltzer said.
"That is the bigger question. Those people who are Salafi-influenced, more conservative, they don't engage in dialogue," she said. "The secular community in Syria has definitely been getting smaller."
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 dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood whose rise to power would destroy the balance that Assad's secular state has maintained. Assad's Baath party has relied heavily on his Alawite sect to run the security, military and other key arms of the state.
Meltzer said it was not clear to her while living in Syria and filming, the extent of any Brotherhood role in the moderate Islamic conservativism she witnessed and documents in the film.
She said there were only a handful of such girls' schools in 1982, the year Assad's father Hafez crushed a Brotherhood revolt, but now there are thousands.
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.
Some Syrian expatriates during one screening were shocked at these scenes, but Meltzer said she wanted to leave the viewers to make their own decisions about the Islamic education and lifestyle depicted.
"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.
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 Koran. 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 Islamic missionary work 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."
Writing by Andrew Hammond