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Nora Repo


The text is a section from a doctoral dissertation An Islamic Mosaic – Women’s Identities in Transition: Albanian Muslim Women in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which has been published by Åbo Akademi University Press. More can be read from here: Http://


Doing research in the borderland – discovering Islam in the Balkans


At the end of a research process that has lasted seven years, I can say that I very much agree with Ruth Behar when she states ‘that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore’ (Behar 1996, 177). Research work happens in interaction with the researcher’s person and s/he influences its outcome. It also leaves traces on the researcher’s person. This interaction evidently includes the emotions Behar so eagerly encourages us to include in the research process. In my fieldwork emotions were many times in the foreground. When people speak about religion and religiosity, issues that come up are often emotionally rooted. Emotional involvement played a role even in the choices I made as to the topic of the thesis. The time that I spend in the field was also emotionally nuanced, both in positive and in negative sense, and emotions marked in multidimensional ways the experiences I had and the things that I observed.


It can of course be questioned how did all these emotional aspects of the work influence the outcome and the results of the study? Did they help or hinder the access to a dialogue with the material and the field? I would say that emotions on many occasions made possible a deeper connection with the interviewees’ and other people’s narratives regarding their religious and other experiences, but they also rendered the work more challenging as the stories were many, and they were all different. I found it particularly demanding to observe the societal context from an angle, which would comprise all the views and demonstrate the complexity of the situation without being trapped into a side taking of some kind. Also, my opportunities to connect to the informants’ narratives were linked to my person and my own experiences. In other words, in my case the points of contact could more easily be found on the side of values and religious experiences than in the women’s descriptions of the more cultural or context related issues. I would however claim that despite the criticism that this kind of working methods can be exposed to, the concrete contact with the people gave access to information that in Balkan studies is rarely in the foreground.


The type and style of the material used can of course be discussed, particularly because of its ‘torn’ nature. The material gathered through interviewing, and through several interpreters, did not make an easy access to very detailed or precise information at all times self-evident. Also, the modest quantity of literary sources regarding the Muslim Albanian women’s religiosity in the Republic of Macedonia sometimes presented a challenge. In my interpretations of the material, I strove to make the women speak for themselves as much as possible through the interview citations. It might have had an influence on how the interviewees were perceived by the readers. However, my opinion is that using this type of reference technique more effectively preserved the authenticity of the material. Furthermore, my strivings to give the material a good contextual basis through my own observations in the field, in addition to literature and other type of data, were aims to support more thorough interpretations of the interviews’ contents, but also simultaneously to uphold the image given of the informants as independent agents, not only as products of historical developments and the contexts they live in. The dialogue that went on between the material and me was a reciprocal continuum of exchange that continuously deepened the way I saw my material and crystallized different themes that I could perceive in it. The narratives of the interviewees reflected the societal and social interplay, which I could place with the help of other material used. Contextualization and concrete contact with the people complemented each other in a dialogic way: the views of the interviewees made it possible for me to observe different societal and social situations and contexts from a more personal, grassroots perspective.


I could say that technically the methods that I had chosen for the fieldwork provided me with relatively satisfying results. As I did not speak the mother tongue of my informants, or that of my field in a larger sense, working with an interpreter was an inevitable choice. Due to the fact that interpreting demands time, it was very rewarding to work with a thematically structured questionnaire. It framed the use of time, structured the themes and let the discussion flow further on quite freely and naturally. It also facilitated the gathering of some more statistical details, which then could additionally support getting a better view of different aspects of religiosities or the lives of Albanian women in the Republic of Macedonia and also help to explain the details related to Islam and identity. However, in order to receive more precise and more detailed answers, I guess more time in the field would have been needed. The question nonetheless is, is there ever enough time? Furthermore this facet of the work and the wishes related to it, as I mentioned in Chapter Four, were linked to and limited by more practical reasons.


Regarding the theoretical model of the analysis, I might say that its benefit was that it made possible to expose many nuances of meaning in the interview material. On the other hand the three analytical levels were not exhaustively separated from each other; rather, they overlapped and intertwined to some extent, something that challenged me when placing certain phenomena into a particular category and level. However, the theoretical model was helpful due to its integrative characteristics, which could take into consideration both the individual and the surrounding environment in the process of identity construction. I would say that both analytical and practical methods gave me good tools with which to widen, diversify and fracture the prevailing, particularly Western, image of Islam. The interview contents could also complement Nathalie Clayer’s (2001) three-part analyses of Islam in the Republic of Macedonia. My attempts were furthermore directed to giving such pictures of the society, research field and research topic that could be recognized by the interviewees, particularly by the women, themselves. The contents of an interview and the answers given in the course it, however, obviously always remain as moments or opinions captured in particular time and context. It may therefore be that the interviewees may sometimes laboriously reinstate them, as they also as persons undergo changes over time.


I have written this thesis ‘vulnerably’, maintaining an awareness of my own involvement and trying to use my acknowledged subjectivity in order to let the informants speak in as detailed a manner as possible about the societal, social and individual issues that concern them, their religious and other identities, their religiosities and Islam. Vulnerability took expression also in that I was dependent on the help and assistance of others during each of the different work phases. At the critical moments there was always someone – something – that gave me the encouragement I needed to continue. The research process behind this thesis has not been simple: it has actually been a very challenging one. However, I have been filled many times with gratitude as I have shared the experiences of learning about myself and others in the process of transforming the chaos of the topic, as it was in the first place, into an order of some kind.


Pondering at the question of identity in the Macedonian context, the words of Shanta Premawardhana can acquire a new meaning; if only we could find ways of living in a constantly changing borderland-position, we could find ways to resist identification with national, ethnic and linguistic identities, which often are somehow claimed from above. This borderland living ‘finds itself in a common solidarity with other human beings, including religious ones struggling to survive and thrive’ (Premawardhana 2008). In the Macedonian context it often seems that defining one’s identity is predominantly done in terms of the relation the particular ethnic group one belongs to has with others. It would most certainly be beneficial for the Republic of Macedonia to create, alongside its rich mix of ethnically coloured institutions and bodies, systems that would be based on other kind of categorizations and sources of identification, such as local or regional communities. (Cf. Brunnbauer 2002; Lehti 1999b and 2009) However, nowadays even these have become ethnically more monolithic. As Amin Maalouf poignantly puts it, as long as a person’s place in a society depends on to which community one belongs to, the divisions between the different communities will only tend to become deeper (Maalouf 1998, 195). Therefore the intermingling and contacts between people from different groups could be encouraged through schooling systems, work places and political parties that would be established on political, and not ethnic, non-corrupt and therefore more trustworthy ideologies. In the multiethnic context there is also a need to understand national independence through other kinds of indicators than each group’s own state, and to detach the notions of nationality and state from each other, as this combination often nourishes strivings for ethnic homogeneity and even ethnic cleansing. With these kinds of transformations there might be opportunities to create a stronger civil society and a trust in the administrative structures, elements that are crucial in unifying, at least to some extent, all the Macedonian citizens in order to establish a more stable Macedonian state.




Behar, Ruth (1996): The Vulnerable Observer. Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston. Beacon Press.


Brunnbauer, Ulf (2002): Implementation of the Ohrid Agreement: Ethnic Macedonian Resentments. (Journal of Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe). University of Gratz; Centre for the Study of Balkan Societies and Cultures (CSBSC). Flensburg: European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI). Http:// (accessed 30 September 2010).


Clayer, Nathalie (2001): ‘L’Islam, facteur des recompositions internes en Macédoine et au Kosovo’, Le Nouvel Islam balkanique. Les musulmans, acteurs du post-communisme 1990-2000, X. Bougarel et N. Clayer (sous la dir.). Paris. Maisonneuve et Larose. pp. 177−240.


Lehti, Marko (2009): Brief Introduction to Non-territorial Self-determination in the Balkans, paper in a seminar Ethnicity in Politics - The Case of Macedonia, organised by Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, 25.5.2009, Helsinki, Finland.


Lehti, Marko (1999b): ‘Bosnia ja Makedonia. Historialliset kummajaiset kansallisvaltioiden maailmassa’, Balkan 2000. Näkökulmia ja taustoja Kaakkois-Euroopan nykytilanteelle, V. Saarikoski (toim.). (Turun yliopiston poliittisen historian tutkimuksia 17). Turku. Turun yliopisto, poliittisen historian laitos. pp. 19–45.


Maalouf, Amin (1998): Les Identités meurtrières. Paris. Bernard Grasset.


Premawardhana, Shanta (2008): Exploring the Identity Dynamics in the Borderland – an Outline. Paper in the seminar Religion and Society: the challenge of multiple identities in Europe and China. In Sigtunastiftelsen, Sweden 3.–6.10.2008.


Nora Repo is a Finnish scholar of Comparative Religion, who has focused in her research on Albanian women and Islam in the Balkans and especially in the Macedonian context. Since the defence of her dissertation (2012, An Islamic Mosaic – Women's Identities in Transition. Albanian Muslim women in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) Repo has worked as an independent lecturer e.g. at Åbo Akademi University, Finnish Adult Education Centre of Helsinki and University of Helsinki. She has also written different types of articles that discuss religion, the Balkan area and Islam, and attended international and domestic conferences and seminars. Repo has been active in ecumenical and interreligious initiatives in Finland already for a decade and cooperated closely with the Finnish Ecumenical Council. Her current research interests comprise feminism in Islam, religion and gender and victimology of Balkan Muslim populations. E-mail: