You see a lot of Bashar al-Assad in The Light in Her Eyes, or at least portraits of him smiling, serene, throughout the busy sunny streets of a pre-uprising Damascus. But he is almost entirely—and quite refreshingly these days—irrelevant to Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix’s documentary, which was shot in 2010, months before the beginning of the revolt. The Light in Her Eyes, which recently premiered on PBS as part of the 25th anniversary season of the POV series (and will be streaming on the POV website until August 19), is centered on a more unusual and subdued heroine, Houda al-Habash. A Muslim preacher and founder of a Qur’an school for girls, al-Habash, for 30 years now, has been encouraging Syrian women to reclaim their long-usurped space within the mosque.    

Women and Islam. The theme is both fundamental and burningly topical. Yet the most interesting aspect of Meltzer and Nix’s choice of al-Habash is that she is not your straightforward maverick inspirational figure. Yes, Houda is an iron-willed pioneer, committed to promoting girls’ education and encouraging women to get jobs in a region where neither is yet a given, rousingly reminding her class: “You are free in your choices, free in your way of thinking, free in your faith, free in everything.” But she is also a deeply conservative woman who smiles gently when her husband tells us: “I support my wife’s work but she should still know her duties.” Though these two traits are not by any means mutually exclusive—nothing ever is, really, in human nature—they do occasionally collide, as when discussing the hijab with her students. “I am not forcing you to wear the hijab. No one has a right to coerce anyone,” she begins, rather free-spiritedly, before adding: “But you need to coerce yourself because it is a divine order.”

At moments like this, she is almost infuriating, making you question whether there actually is all that much hope forthcoming for women in the Islamic world. But then she surprises you again, sending her daughter away to the American University of Sharjah to study international relations, maintaining that “a girl who is smart and strong enough can travel like a man . . . and live like a man,” and even admitting that “Muslims themselves have deprived women of everything.” You watch her young students animatedly voicing their concerns about “the Islamic world falling behind” at recess. And you begin to wonder, at first almost despite yourself, whether Houda’s small cautious steps may not ultimately be the more effective way to advance social progress; whether her very piousness—rather than, say, a more antagonistic secularism—could not in fact be the better weapon in the fight against fundamentalism.

This might not be the most enthralling of conclusions. It might actually sit rather uneasily with some of us. But insight often lies outside of our comfort zones. The Light in Her Eyes manages to take us there, avoiding the bombastic polarization of so many Western takes on the Islamic world, forever looking for heroes or villains, and offering us, instead, an unembellished glimpse into the actual intricacies and contradictions of Muslim society.