The International Women’s Day was marked on March 8. The theme this year was parity in all fields and spheres of life, and that we must ‘Step it Up’ if we want to see parity in our lifetime. We have a long way to go. Yet there are many great women, and men, too, who can be our heroes and heroines. I will in my article today draw attention to a few, beginning with a man of Pakistani background in Norway, doing well and thinking new in the field of Islam in a secular land where the majority is Christian.

I will also hold up the first woman to become a parish priest in the Church of Norway. She was not really standing on barricades and marching in demonstrations, but she was principled and true to her heart’s feelings; she followed her calling in religion and other fields.
Norway got its first woman Chief Justice just 10 days ago when Toril Øie was appointed. It was about time, wasn’t it?

There are lessons in these people’s lives, and we can be inspired by them, in relatively egalitarian Norway, and in Pakistan, where there is more to do. But that also means more opportunities for great Pakistani activities.

It is easy to get stuck in traditions that belong to the past, especially if we live a comfortable life. All of us want to live in our own comfort zone, physically, mentally and socially. At the same time, we want to be modern and embrace new ideas and new ways.

In future, the real challenge for us all – for me and you – is to be true to our own beliefs and be principled and flexible at the same time.

That is a creative process for true thinkers who question and reflect on the world around us – either we are deep thinkers, everyday philosophers or just engaged citizens in social, political, cultural, religious and other issues.

It is true for most of us that till we see something else, we don’t quite believe it could be done. We believe when we see it – and when we see the new, we mostly find it good and right. That can be about gender relations, ethnic and religious relations, class relations, and more.

On Monday this week, Mohammad Usman Rana’s book was released in Oslo, entitled, ‘Norsk Islam: Hvordan elske Norge og Koranen samtidig’; in English, ‘Norwegian Islam: How to love Norway and the Quran at the same time’ (Aschehoug Publishers, Oslo, 2016). The young author of 31 was born in Norway to Pakistani immigrants. He is a medical doctor and a columnist and commentator in ‘Aftenposten’, Norway’s major newspaper. He has been a member of Islamsk Råd Norge (Islamic Council Norway), and remains a devoted Muslim who prays five times a day, and has done Hajj. He is in many ways a pillar of the Norwegian society.

Rana’s book came to life as a soul-searching task, carried out along his full-time job, public engagements, travels and more. He is also a husband and father of a young boy. He has recently had a few months paid father’s or paternity leave, used to complete the book and get closer to his son. The latter is actually a very Islamic thinking, his father told him. The secular Norwegians have practiced it for a few decades now. Obviously, the mother can take longer paid leave, about a year, before delivery and till the newborn is two years.

Rana wants to contextualise Islam in Norway, as specialists say, and through that, contribute to developing modern Islam in a secular Western country. He believes most Muslim preachers should mainly be educated in the culture where they work. He believes that the secular Norwegian state gives good room for religious associations, the majority within the Christian religion’s many denominations, and, of course Islam, a small religion in Norway, with many denominations, too. All religious associations receive government support depending on membership.

Rana’s new book explores how Islam can become a true part of the Norwegian society. It is an exciting project, and it can only be done by Muslim Norwegians. Parity with the country’s old religion is not served on a silver platter, it has to be achieved.

Hadia Tajik (34) is a Norwegian Muslim and a former Minister of Culture; she is Deputy Chair of the Labour Party, Norway’s largest political party. She, too, is of Pakistani heritage, born and bred in Norway, educated there and in England. She says that she is not a Muslim politician; she is a politician who happens to be a Muslim. Being a modern and thinking person, she takes up many issues that people of different faith associations struggle with and debate in an increasingly multicultural country in and global world. She was recently invited to speak at a large meeting in Nidaros Diocese. Christians wanted to learn from her and reflect with her.

For Norwegians, it would have been unthinkable to have a Muslim speaking to them – and indeed being listened to – just a decade or two ago. She is a woman who makes her land stronger. And, yes, women are sometimes as more sincere, levelheaded and independent thinkers than men.

In 1961, Ingrid Bjerkås made history in Norway when she was ordained to be pastor in the Church of Norway and appointed to be parish priest in a remote North-Norwegian parish on Senja Island. She was 60 and served for about five years in the parish; her husband past away at the end of her tenure, and she also suffered from ill health herself due to overwork and criticism from opponents of women priests.

But she was also loved; and was nicknamed “the Mother” among the local people. That time, a Norwegian priest was a civil servant. Some men (and possibly some women, too) said they had to accept that the post was held by a woman, but they also wanted a man to handle counseling and other issues if they felt it was theologically or socially wrong to deal with a woman. She declined that request, and said she was the priest for all in her large, rural parish.

Besides, it had never been heard that women could not accept a male priest. In the Catholic branch of the Church, all priests are still men.

Today, about a third of the Norwegian priests are women, and in the six-year long university-level education to become a priest; although most professors are still men. Of the 12 bishops in Norway, there are now 4 women, not quite gender parity yet.

One of the Norwegian bishops, Ingeborg Midttømme, is today in Islamabad, attending a conference organised by Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) on climate change and interfaith. Yes, theologians, too, must learn about and advice on all things that God created and gave men and women responsibility to be custodians of.

If somebody had suggested this fast gender-equality development in the Church of Norway when I was young, in the 1960s, I would have thought it would have taken much longer. And now, most people seem to accept the new time, and sometimes, even the men (and women) who were against women being clergy, have now realised that women are as good, even better, than men. True, some are stubborn, or theologically orthodox, and will remain against ‘women of the cloth’, but they, too, will get used to it. In another half century, people may simply look back at the debate and struggle as strange and old-fashioned. But till we began to see women priests and bishops, we couldn’t believe that would happen. When we see it, we may even say it was a blessing that it happened and that we had done wrong through centuries.

The first woman to serve as priest in the Church of Norway, Ingrid Bjerkås, was always a principled woman. She was active in the Norwegian Resistance Movement during the WWII when Nazi Germany occupied her country, and she served a long prison term at Grini detention centre outside Oslo. When in 1966, she wrote her bestselling memoirs, ‘Mitt kall’, My Calling’, she also stressed that her societal and professional work was important, but that her duty towards family, children and grandchildren was as important, maybe even more important. Only a woman would say that.