Uncovering the stories behind Islam

After the Christchurch terrorist attacks of 15 March, the Asia New Zealand Foundation asked Dr Eva Nisa to provide a list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for journalists covering Islamic issues. Her response was, “the most important thing is they don’t essentialise, because, like any religion, Islam is very diverse”.

Dr Eva Nisa stands outside of an enterance to a building.

Journalists—and anyone else—should be cautious talking about “the position of Islam” or what “Islam says”, warns Eva, a lecturer in the Religious Studies programme of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Social and Cultural Studies.

“A religion doesn’t think, doesn’t act—its believers think and act,” she says.

Eva’s mother is an Islamic preacher to women congregants in Indonesia and envisaged her daughter following in her footsteps after she went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, to study for a Bachelor’s degree, specialising in the Qur’an.

But in Cairo, and in her subsequent studies in the Netherlands, Australia, and Germany, Eva’s focus widened from theology to incorporate other disciplines and a broader cultural perspective on Islam.

That is the perspective she now passes on to students, encouraging them to be critical thinkers and to understand Islam in different contexts, including the law, politics and international relations, and business and economics.

Underlying her research and teaching is the imperative to recognise “there are so many different Muslim voices”. This is the case not only between countries but within countries, and even within the same communities within countries.

Fittingly, Eva’s range of research projects is broad too, including looking at how the internet and social media interacts with Islam, the role of Muslim youth in spreading diverse perspectives of Islam in Southeast Asia, and middle-class Muslims, philanthropy, and the Islamic economy.

One of her principal focuses is women and Islam, including Muslim women judges and Islamic law reform, and international collaborations such as an Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures and a Muslim marriages project looking at contract marriage, arranged marriage, unregistered marriage, online secret marriage, and speed dating—the last in Malaysia.

It is important to listen to Muslim women and their experiences, says Eva.

“One example is women with a veil. They are always represented as oppressed, as wearing a veil because of their male relatives or religious teachers. But although some are oppressed, for others the veil is a choice and you are oppressing them when you ask them to take it off. You are asking them to remove something that is their freedom and the way they exercise their agency.”

As the crammed whiteboard planner on her office wall illustrates, Eva’s research schedule is a busy one.

It is, however, the way she satisfies her curiosity. “That’s something I love to do,” she says. “Every time I see something, I go, ‘Hmm, that’s very interesting, what’s the story behind that?’”