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Repo Nora, An Islamic Mosaic- Women’s Identities in Transition : Albanian Muslim Women in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Åbo Akademi University Press, Åbo, Finland, 2012, 410 p.

Emi Goto

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1It might be common knowledge, or rather a common experience, that “the identity” is formed over time through an unconscious process in which both personal and social elements play different roles in different situations; age, gender, position (in a family or other groups), profession, language, ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation are only some of the elements. The identity is never complete: “it is continuously in process and constantly forming and modifying itself” as Nora Repo, the author of the present work, observes (p. 38). Thus, to grasp someone’s identity or to describe its dynamic nature is not an easy task.

2This observation is especially true with regard to the Balkan populations in general, and the Albanian Muslims who live in Macedonia in particular. The territory of the current Republic of Macedonia is surrounded by Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, and Greece. It has been a part of major empires and kingdoms for long time: the Byzantine Empire and the Bulgarian and Serbian kingdoms in the medieval period, and then the Ottoman Empire from the late fourteenth to the early twentieth century. It then became a part of Serbia and hence of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes which later became royal and then socialist Yugoslavia before it declared independence in 1991.

3The population composition of the Republic is as intricate as its historical development. The census of 2002 showed that out of slightly over two million inhabitants, 64% spoke Macedonian as their mother tongue, and 25% spoke Albanian. There were also some Turkish, Serbian, Romani, Vlach, and Bosnian speakers. The religious ratio was somewhat similar to that of language variation. The same census indicated that 64% of the population was orthodox Christian, 33% Muslim, with the rest being Catholic and Protestant Christians (pp. 81–82). Albanians (or Albanian speaking people) represent the majority (70%) of the Muslim population, about 50,000 in number. They live mostly in the northern and western parts of the country near the borders with Kosovo and Albania (pp. 96-97).

4This book attempts the challenge of describing the identity construction of Albanian Muslim women in the Republic of Macedonia during the first decade of the 2000s by highlighting their “religiosities” and “the meaning of Islam” for them. As a scholar of religious studies and comparative religion with an interest in “everyday lived realities,” the author conducted several short-term fieldwork sessions (over a five-month period) in the capital and other parts of the Republic between 2008 and 2009, interviewed 19 women and 3 men, and did participant observation in order to discover a new tendency in the manifestation of religious identities.

5At the beginning of the 2000s, as the author notes, Nathalie Clayer (2001) suggested a division of Albanian Muslims in the Republic into three groups: first, “the often elderly populations in the villages, who have a strong religious identity expressed through a traditional Islamic way of living…”; second, “the partially urbanized first generations of the communist period [in which religion was treated as a private matter] which have internalized Islam as a natural element of their cultural heritage,” often without practicing; and third, “the very urbanized younger generations who are influenced by the nationalist ideology [of integration] with atheist tendencies.” In the present work, the author adds another group of people who have “liberal, more individual or reformist views of Islam”; these constitute the majority of her interviewees (quotations are all from Repo p. 21).

6As mentioned above, Albanian Muslims are the minority in terms of ethnicity and religion in the population of Republic of Macedonia. The author’s findings, along with the results of previous studies, suggest that the identities of citizens in the Republic “have tended to become more compartmentalized than unified, as each of the societal groups seemed to be obliged to fight for their own rights” (p. 206). Having different mother tongues, Macedonians and Albanians read different newspapers, watch different TV programs, and have a different basic education. The author, as well as others, has pointed out that as the minority, Albanians have tended to feel otherness and social marginalization. Some of the women among the author’s informants also noted here the feeling of otherness in relation to gender, although many of them agreed that there have been recent improvements in their rights and position as Macedonian citizens and members of Albanian societies.

7Among the Albanians, who constitute the majority of the Muslim population in the Republic, “being a Muslim” can mean several different things. After the dissolution of the socialist Yugoslavia, in which authoritarian secularism was favored and thus religious institutions were controlled by the state, “Islam” became diversified. In addition to the traditional Sunni Islamic institution, new actors entered the religious field in the country—such as members of youth organizations; various tarikas, or Sufi brotherhoods; and neo-Salafist groups which may be divided into pietist and Jihadist (both groups distinguishing themselves from others by emphasizing a return to the Islam of their pious ancestors).

8In a chapter titled “Islam: Gathering Together and Making a Difference,” the author introduces various comments of women that express different opinions on gender issues and ways of living among diversified Islamic groups and their actors, as well as diversified views among the generations and urban/rural populations. The findings show that tensions exist between the plural Muslim “communes” in the Republic of Macedonia. In addition, because of these perceived differences, women have begun to reflect upon their own practice of Islam; they have been questioning their own “religiosities” and “the meaning of Islam.” As the author expresses it, “[i]n multireligious and multicultural environments, religion could function as an indicator of sameness and difference” (p. 277), and the feeling of “sameness” has also been cultivated among the women, as the author elaborates in the latter half of this chapter, through the sharing of Islamic celebrations and rites of transition.

9Thus, the identities of Albanian Muslim women have been “continuously in process and constantly forming and modifying” through exposure to everyday interactions with others within the varied and transforming societies. Repo’s work is valuable because it details the most complex processes by giving specific examples. However, its contribution to wider academia is the light it sheds on another element of the identities of Albanian Muslim women, which is their spiritual relationship and daily interaction with God. In the last chapter, titled “Islamic Ideals and Interpretations,” the author specifies that faith, gratitude, and love toward God are an expressed motivation for the women’s daily conduct and behavior. Repo also points out that although the articulated motivations were similar among participants, the resulting conduct of these women was not always the same because of differences in interpretations, in many cases their own. These findings led to the author’s assumption that “liberal, more individual or reformist views of Islam” have appeared and/or increased among Albanian Muslims.

10The present work is not especially easy to read, one reason being that it shows such a divergence in the variety of opinions expressed by the women interviewed on every related matter. The chaotic result, if I may call it so, reflects the sincerity of the author in presenting her materials; probably, it is the very situation that the author wished to describe. As observed in the conclusion, “the Albanian Muslim women are, each one of them, different, and they express their Islamic religiosities and religious identities in a variety of ways” (p. 350), though they also shared certain things and some aspects were intertwined. As the title of the book indicates, each of the women is like a piece of mosaic with different colors and different reflections. In total, they create a certain picture.

11My similar interest in women’s religious identity construction among Muslim Egyptians drew me to Cairo for field research during the first decade of the 2000s. It is surprising to see that the Albanian picture that Repo draws is very similar to that in Egypt: the existence and increase of diversified Islamic groups and/or their actors, the differences in understanding and practicing Islam between generations or urban/rural populations, and above all, the appearance and/or increase of “liberal, more individual or reformist views of Islam” among females. In this context, it could be assumed that Repo’s work forms one of the pieces of “an Islamic Mosaic in the contemporary world.” What we can hope for is to find more pieces so that eventual comparative studies can reveal what the appearance of the whole picture.

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Clayer Nathalie, 2001, « L'islam, facteur des recompositions internes en Macédoine et au Kosovo », in Bougarel Xavier et Clayer Nathalie (dir.), Le Nouvel Islam Balkanique. Les Musulmans, acteurs du post-communisme, 1990-2000, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose, p. 177-240.

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Emi Goto, « Repo Nora, An Islamic Mosaic- Women’s Identities in Transition : Albanian Muslim Women in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Åbo Akademi University Press, Åbo, Finland, 2012, 410 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], Lectures inédites, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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Emi Goto

Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, The University of Tokyo, Japon

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Les contenus de la Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.

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