Last night’s airing of The Light in Her Eyes was a great opportunity for me to, for the umpteenth time, grill my friend Laila about that scarf she wears over her head every day. Yes, Laila is a devout Muslim woman who comes from overseas and has found a life here in New York City. We have very different backgrounds, but have a great time talking about those differences, and she schools me, a non-believer, in the ways of Islam. I wish everyone in America had a Laila to talk to, but in lieu of that, we’ve got The Light in Her Eyes, which I think will open a lot of eyes for American viewers.

I asked Laila, who recently returned from a pilgrimage to Syria, to watch the documentary, which she called “beautiful,” and to answer a few questions. I’ll just note that the tenor of our conversation here is a lot more serious than our usual discussions. Laila has a sharp wit, and she can handle any jibe thrown her way with as much 21st century liberated woman moxie as some of the women who are balancing a devout life in a secular world we see in The Light in Her Eyes.

Doc Soup Man: What’s the biggest misperception about Muslim women?

Laila: The biggest misperceptions are that Muslim women are not encouraged to achieve secular goals in life; that we don’t have personal goals in life; that we are not allowed to make decisions on our own–that we are oppressed.

Doc Soup Man: Do you ever feel that your customs and traditions cage you?

Laila: No! My customs and traditions don’t cage me because, like Houda, I come from an open-minded family and surroundings, and because I live in a country that allows for religious freedom. But I do understand if other women in Middle Eastern countries feel caged because of their surrounding traditions and customs. (Please note: these are different from their religion).

Doc Soup Man: The placing of the hijab on the girls is probably the most moving moment in the film. What did you think of that scene? Do you agree
that it is like wearing flag?

Laila: Absolutely! By wearing a scarf I am representing my religion, which is very important for me, my womanhood. And when I have it on, I find it my responsibility to represent it in a positive light.

Doc Soup Man: What do you say to Westerners who might feel a sense of awkwardness that these beautiful, happy girls are covering themselves up? It suggests to us, on some level, that they are hiding themselves or repressing themselves.

Laila: I would like to tell all Westerners not to worry about Muslim women who like to cover themselves. We are not hiding from anybody or being repressed in any way, especially if I don’t come from an extremist family. Going around in mini skirts doesn’t profess our freedom. Please leave it up to us to decide what is freedom for us.

Doc Soup Man: When you went to Syria, how did you feel about life for Muslim
women there?

Laila: Syria looked very modern. It all depended on the location, but even in areas where women wore scarves, those women where dressed in tight jeans and blouses. Haha! Do you call that repressed? Ha ha!

‘The Light in Her Eyes’ is currently streaming on the POV website, but only for a limited time! Watch the film »

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen