Young, Muslim and Woman, Norwegian style

It is possible to identify three main tendencies in how the identity of young Muslim women in Oslo is shaped in relation to their religion. These are the pulls of ethnicity, the terms of private life and new kinds of practices. These tendencies cannot be placed on a continuum that identifies them as either more or less traditional or (post)modern, but must be understood as different frameworks for approaching the complexity and ambivalences of life. The three tendencies can be linked to different ideals of femininity and different ways of negociating gender. The intersection between religion and gender is a site of multiple identities where Islam can be expressed in different ways with reference to concepts such as authenticity, modernity and tradition.

Drawing on participant observation I undertook with two Muslim youth and student organisations, as well as interviews with a group of young Muslim women in Oslo, I want to sketch out some of the different processes that are shaping identity for young Muslim women – in particular their ethnic and religious gender identity. My analysis approaches identity as a relational process, or as processes of identification that are basically social and dynamic (Young 1990, Moore 1994, Calhoun 1995, Hall and du Gay 1996). Even if individuals adopt different relationships to these processes, the different tendencies still play an important role and overlap each other; so being a Muslim is defined relationally and contextually. Identity is always something being developed as things change, it is never a finished product. It involves a continual process of coming into being – of becoming Muslim, rather than being Muslim as a fixed and static identity. Religion is, however, only one aspect of a person’s composite identity. Other forms of identification can cut across any religious sense of belonging and set in motion other forms of social interaction and alignments, based, for example, on ethnicity, class, gender, religious beliefs or political leanings.

A “taken for granted” part of life”

The first tendency that could be observed among the young Muslim women in Oslo is that Muslim identity is, to a great extent, an aspect of ethnic and cultural identity. Religion is a “taken for granted” part of life that you take with you from childhood through adolescence and into adult life. To be, for example, a “Moroccan” is synonymous with being Muslim. The religious identity is woven into the cultural and religious values upheld by the family – especially holidays and religious festivals – and also into the discursive practices that divide people into groupings of “us” versus “the others”. For some, religious identity has enormous emotional and practical significance, whereas for others it first and foremost is a form of identification with, or contrast to different groups of “others”.

An internal affair

The second tendency sees being religious as a private and individual process. Religion here is seen as an inner concern, an aspect of individual identity, and is most meaningful, more than anything else, as “a private place”. What is crucial here is that religion is understood first and foremost as a personal choice that the individual must make herself, not as a consequence of belonging to a certain family or ethnic group. Religious duty is not the main thing here, but what comes into focus with much greater significance is how ’I’ understand religion. In this tendency, identification of oneself as Muslim can be mainly symbolic, since it is understood as having little or no impact on everyday life, but is able to provide a basis for personal religious practice.

“Real” Islam

A third tendency is what can be called the emergence of a new Norwegian Muslim subject position as the foundation for lifestyle and shared identity. Here individual and personal emphasis is put on religious identity; an inner, personal relationship to God is important.

At the same time, however, this tendency is part of a collective experience and is influenced by a form of identity politics that shape Muslim identity in a Norwegian context. This tendency prevails in Muslim youth and student organisations. To describe it as a form of identity politics that stand alongside other ways identity is politicised in this day and age does not undermine its significance for the production of meaning and behaviour. It is producing new practices and relativising the old ones, and has genuine importance for how a section of young Muslims give shape to their everyday life.

The main feature of this tendency is that these young people distance themselves from their parents’ traditions and choose to learn about what they call ’real Islam’. Even though this tendency is also coloured by each individual’s relationship to religion, it emphasises that religion cannot be reduced to the private sphere, but, on the contrary, Islam represents a life style that colours – and should colour – all aspects of daily life.

The ideal homeland

These three distinct tendencies I have described can affect the adoption of gendered positions and the ways gender is negotiated in different ways. In the first tendency, culture and religion are equally important, so that, for example, relatives in Pakistan or Morocco are seen as ideals for Muslim femininity, for “how we should be”. This is how Inaam, for example, talked about helping at home more than her brothers did:

And, like, when we’re in Pakistan that’s when I sort of learn about how we in our culture and religion should behave in our family context and what roles we have. I really learn a lot there […]Because I can watch people who are models for me…my girl cousins and people like that. ‘Cos I can see then how you’re supposed to behave in your family, and see how helpful they are to others and doing housework, like, or in relation to their brothers; like, my brother will be here soon and maybe he’ll want food or something. It’s a sort of automatic reaction. So I learn quite a lot in this way.

“Muslim feminism”

In the second tendency, culture and strictly conservative versions of religion are criticised for restricting women’s emerging possibilities, blocking opportunities for individual choice or freedom for women to do as they want. Fundamentalists and others considered ’strictly religious’ are a central reference point for this tendency’s critical renegotiations of women’s status and position in society.

This tendency most closely represents what we would recognise as a Western feminist critique. It generally involves greater criticism of the ways gender roles are institutionalised in the parents’ homeland, and it places more positive emphasis on Norwegian ideals associated with freedom and gender equality. Hamida related the following:

In our culture it’s said that boys can have more freedom. It’s all to do with religion, with the way you see it. So many issues are involved in this: what is the reason given why boys can have more freedom than girls? Girls have always been like, well, you know – you must stay at home and cook the food; that was how people thought a hundred years ago, so that’s the way people think now, because of the religious leadershop that dominates in Pakistan. This is what has ruined so much, so, so much. That kind of fanatic or fundamentalist. They’ve also give Islam a really negative reputation.

Islamic authenticity and true freedom

Within the third tendency gender is negotiated first and foremost from a position that sees a sharp split between cultural traditions – that are seen as contextually particular – and true Islam which is seen as being about universal, everlasting truths. In contrast to the above example, it is not an issue of “too much religion” or of fundamentalist interpretations, but of “wrong interpretations” and the confusion of religion and cultural traditions that come under critical scrutiny.

This critical discourse that grounds its legitimacy in a kind of “Islamic authenticity” is often called fundamentalism. Invoking “Islamic authenticity” as the legitimating basis for positions and practices can be either conservative or transformatory, and can be invoked by groups that take very different positions.

The discourse of “Islamic authenticity” also appears as important for young Muslims in Norway, and serves several purposes in constituting identity and other cultural and social relationships. “Islamic authenticity” is especially important for young women in regards to how they negotiate gender issues. The ideal for Muslim femininity is not “women in the homeland” who have maintained their culture and religion, nor western feminists who fight for freedom and equality. It is to live up to true Islamic ideals and values as they themselves are understood to embody freedom and equality between women and men. This position leads to a criticism of how gender is understood and organised both in the “host country” and in the “homeland”, and points towards something that has not yet been achieved: the ideal Muslim society.

Islam and power

What at least the two latter tendencies share is an appeal to Islam as a resource for changing gender roles. This can be a more or less conscious strategy from the young women’s’ point of view. Hamida talked of her knowledge of the Koran in the following way:

I want to say that it is the only tool that has made me feel stronger in Pakistani society. Because when you can say, this is what the Koran says, no-one can contradict you, can they? […] Because you know it then yourself, you’ve read it yourself. It gives you more power, you know what I mean?

These women interested in “new practices” see knowledge about what “true Islam” is as their guarantee for ending practices that discriminate against women. It therefore becomes especially important to educate yourself in religion in order to be able to claim your rights. It is, however, not only women who have recourse to the authenticity discourse to support their point of view, and there are relatively clear limits on what can be considered as legitimate interrogation within it. In Muslim organisations there are rules and regulations about the kinds of questions it is valid to put to religion. That human ability to understand things is limited, and that one must therefore accept to live with certain kinds of questions unanswered, is the kind of precept often repeated on occasions when Muslims gather together. Control procedures such as this exclude, limit and regulate Islam as a discursive tradition. This discourse can seem restrictive when it implies one is unwilling to discuss problems linked to cultural traditions and rejects them as of no concern for Islam, as some leading figures do. The distinction that authenticity discourse makes between religion and cultural values can therefore either help to invalidate and block the posing of certain questions, or is equally able to challenge institutionalised practices that discriminate against women.

Feminism and ethnocentrism

Feminists in Norway, as in other Western countries, are often blind to the complexities that Muslim women are navigating within their Muslim identity. Oversimplified dichotomies such as modern versus traditional, Norwegian versus immigrant have pervaded understandings of women and difference and interpreted Muslim women through stigmatising stereotypes. The stereotype that currently shapes images of young women in the so-called “second generation” is that they are victims of patriarchal family structures and religious conservatism. From this perspective they can only become independent and equal by rejecting their culture and religion and adopting “our” values and ideals of freedom. In reality, however, Muslim women in Norway have many ways they are negotiating and navigating feminine identity. The three approaches to elaborating their identity described in this article each in their own way represent both adaption to and criticism of the existing practices and forms of identity associated with gender – each carrying with it its own possibilities and limits.

By Christine M. Jacobsen


Calhoun, Craig (1995): Critical Social Theory: culture, history, and the challenge of difference. Blackwell, Oxford.

Foucault, Michel (1999): Diskursens orden. Spatacus Forlag A/S, Oslo.

Hall, Stuart and Paul du Gay (eds.) (1996): Questions of Cultural Identity. SAGE Publications, London.

Moore, Henrietta L. (1994): A Passion for Difference. Essays in Anthropology and Gender. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Young, Iris M. (1990): Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2001 © NIKK

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