There is an NGO leader in Peshawar I would like tell you about today, a couple of days after the 100th International Womens Day on March 8th. She is Maryam Bibi from Waziristan. A few years ago, in her mid-fifties, she received her MPhil degree from a British university. And when we met recently, she had just submitted her PhD dissertation. She runs a successful organisation dealing with girls education and womens issues, including a crisis centre for women. In addition, she has been a housewife, a mother and a social worker for everyone, as is often the case for Pakistani women. In other words, she has lived a full and hectic life, but she still goes on, as if she were in her twenties. Maryam is not an ordinary Pakistani woman, but judged by her dress, you might mistake her for one, and she could have ended up being one if she had not had all her energy, good health, ideals, vision, and indeed, willingness to keep at it. Yes, because it is work, work and more work. The Womens Day, by the way, began as the International Working Womens Day. Maryam is a unique woman. She is a role model to all of us - women and men - from remote villages, towns and cities anywhere in the world, including in Norway, my home country. There are many such women, in Pakistan and in Norway, looking traditional and ordinary, but being far from it. Some may live very ordinary lives in their villages in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, and elsewhere in the beautiful lands of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Norway. Why Norway again? Just because thats my homeland and, besides, the largest group of immigrants in the country from far away, come from Pakistan. Two-thirds of them are Punjabis and most of them Gujratis, about 35,000 in number in Norways population just shy of five million. But then the Pathans are there, too, almost 10,000, immigrants from Pakistan and refugees from Afghanistan. They are liked for being so hard working. The Pakistani men do well in business. The women do well in education. The Afghans, who have come more recently, are the responsible workers and still keep climbing the ladder, while most Pakistanis came a generation ago and feel at home. But few Pakistani women have jobs outside the home, even if they are well educated. They often follow the outdated convention of still getting married to a cousin from their parents homeland, so they keep importing brides and grooms, risking inherited diseases and extended family problems. In the old-time village with need for social and economic security, it played a role, but not in Norway today. Why not be more innovative and look for somebody a bit more exciting than the daughter or son of an aunt or uncle? In Norway, 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, about half that percentage in the Pakistani-Norwegian community. It is only allowed to have one spouse at a time. That is probably one of the reasons for the high divorce rate. And then it is not only the husband who can decide on divorce, but also the wife. Interesting, too, most Norwegian men who divorce re-marry, but women more rarely. They can lead respectable and independent lives alone, perhaps even better than if they were married. When I grew up, religion still had a grip on our moral behaviour, and the religious leaders were against divorce. Today, it is almost the opposite, religious leaders are told what is morally, socially and psychologically best and they must keep up with modern norms. Many women, who get divorced or have an abortion, may be at least as morally and religiously more upright than the rest of us. Yet, women seem always to have to fight for their rights and recognition. But we get used to the ways, even the most conservative religious leaders, and other pillars of society. Not all new ways may be good, objectively judged, but they may be the best under the circumstances in the specific country at the specific time, for women and men. Often it is the youth and people in difficulties, who change and improve conventions and social norms. Why dont the religious leaders contribute more and help people to find new and better ways to live? It is not that they have not seen it all, because in such jobs, they have. Hence, they should be challenged to contribute more and use their wisdom in new ways. They should be creative and innovative, the same way that people like Maryam Bibi have contributed to changing the world - her world and ours, in the family, neighbourhood, workplace, the city and beyond. But most of all, leaders like Maryam Bibi help change our fixed ways of thinking. She has contributed to women and men looking for alternative ways of answering the many challenges that face us human beings. She has also contributed to showing us that it is not her answers that are right, but it is yours and mine in our situations. And then, let me tell you a story about another woman, this time a more ordinary woman perhaps, but indeed a unique woman. My Aunt Helga in Norway was a dressmaker, well, part-time only, because she had to look after her widowed father, my grandfather, a retired army officer. She stayed unmarried and could not leave the village for a job in the city. Everyone praised her for being so 'conscientious, cooking potatoes, making meatballs, keeping the coffee warm, and the flowerbeds weeded, so that my grandfathers style and status could be kept up. Yes, this was a mens world, in Norway, too, and it is not that long ago. My grandfather died a very old man. But when it happened, my aunt had no job, no pension, not even a house to live in because my grandfather had decided to leave that to his son, not 'just to a woman. Aunt Helga had several difficult years. Luckily, another brother bought a house for her. She became a shop assist and continued with dressmaking, and later she became the owner of the shop. And then, perhaps the most interesting news, at the age of 67 when all Norwegians can retire on a government pension, she did something unexpected: She married for the first time to her sweetheart from her youth, whose wife had passed away early. That much we found out, we, her nephews, because we had to investigate such an unusual story. Even the Norwegians on the coast south of Bergen were not used to that much food for gossip and conversation. All were impressed, though, with Aunt Helga eventually doing what she wanted, and they were happy for her. She was a friendly and known personality in the village, at the market, in the Church, in her nephews lives and further beyond. But what was done to her because of the gender biased conventions during the best years of her life, was wrong, and could never be corrected. There are many women like Maryam Bibi and Aunt Helga, in Pakistan and in Norway. They may look traditional and ordinary. But they are neither. As a matter of fact, every person is unique. The stories of the two women today teach us practical sociology and history. We learn about outdated conventions and customs, and, on the positive side, we learn about alternative thinking and independence. Let us support women and men who do what they think is right for themselves and the wider world, even when they break conventions and rules. Without such people, the world would have stagnated long ago. n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad.