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A Glimpse of Diversity


Sun, May 6th, 2012
Posted in All Norwegian Ancestry

From my experiences in Lillehammer so far, I have realized that Norway is a pretty homogeneous country. The nation does have a fair amount of refugees from Africa and eastern Europe, but very few people are visibly non-Scandinavian. This could be a problem of integration, (with some ethnic groups remaining in social circles that reflect their place of origin) but I have been very surprised at the lack of diversity within my city.

That said, my eyes were recently opened to a whole new community with a visit paid to the Muslim mosque in Lillehammer. Part of the religion course I am taking included a "field trip" to the mosque for a Friday prayer service and discussion. It was an experience that would have given me a new perspective in any country, but the fact that it took place in blue-eyed, blonde-haired Norway only heightened the impact.

Preparation for our visit to the mosque included an intense week of reading the Qur'an and learning about Islam, but we also received some cultural lessons about what is acceptable behavior in visiting the place of worship. The "rules" mostly applied to women because there are so many social expectations for females in the Muslim community.

We were instructed to wear loose-fitting clothing, which proved to be more difficult than we initially thought. Clothes that Americans deem casual and conservative, like a simple t-shirt and jeans, would be highly inappropriate for a Muslim woman to wear. I was most concerned about wearing a scarf over my head, partly because I was self-conscious about how I looked, but also because I didn't want it to seem like a mocking gesture.

When we arrived at the mosque, a man politely greeted us and gave us a very warm welcome. We removed our shoes and were ushered to a small corner of the temple that was separated from the rest of the space by a curtain. We were greeted by some other males, which left me feeling a bit awkward because I am so used to extending my hand and smiling at someone I meet. The men could not shake the women's hands or even make eye contact, so I was a bit nervous that my outgoing personality would come across as offensive. Luckily I did not make any faux pas.

Before long my male classmates were welcomed back into the temple, while my five female classmates and I stayed behind. I quickly realized that we were the only women who would be in attendance; Muslim women are not allowed to pray with the men, but even our presence there had to be concealed during the service. As the six of us watched the men file out, the imam quickly came over to completely shut the curtain before the service commenced.

The visit to the mosque and hour-long worship was a nice glimpse at the beauty and hospitality of the Muslim culture, and I was thoroughly entranced by the beautiful, Arabic Scripture readings. I wasn't sure what type of impact that seclusion would have on me, but instead of feeling offended, I gained a new view of the gender issues of Islam. Many Western women think of Muslim women as sheltered and oppressed, but most of them view it as a measure of protection and respect. Though I did feel uncomfortable at times, it was an experience that made me appreciate the rights that I take for granted in America and also the fact that my voice can be heard as you read this.

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