When Amra Babic walks down the streets of Visoko wearing her Muslim head scarf, men sitting in outdoor cafes instantly rise from their chairs, fix their clothes and put out their cigarettes.
The 43-year-old economist has blazed a trail in this war-scarred Balkan nation by becoming its first hijab-wearing mayor, and possibly the only one in Europe. Her victory in elections Oct. 7 came as governments elsewhere in Europe debate laws to ban the veil, and Turkey, another predominantly Islamic country seeking membership of the European Union, maintains a strict policy of keeping religious symbols out of public life.
For centuries, Bosnia has been a cultural and religious mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats who occasionally fought each other but most of the time lived peacefully.
Ms. Babic said her victory in the Oct. 7 elections broke multiple barriers, from bigotry against women in a traditionally male-dominated society to stigmatization of the hijab that originated under the Communist regime that ruled from 1945 until Yugoslavia started to unravel in 1990.
“Finally we have overcome our own prejudices,” she said. “The one about women in politics, then the one about hijab-wearing women — and even the one about hijab-wearing women in politics.”
By Bosnian law, at least 30 percent of the candidates in any election have to be women, but voters have been reluctant to give women a chance. Only 5 of the 185 mayors elected this month are women.
Election posters of other candidates still up around town have been scrawled with vampire teeth, mustaches or spectacles; none of Ms. Babic’s posters bear such graffiti, and people ask to be photographed next to them.
At first, such attention upset Ms. Babic, who prefers her hijab not to be an issue or a diversion from her political program.
“They probably look at my picture and think of their lost opportunities,” Ms. Babic said when asked about such scenes. “They probably think: Go, girl! You do it if I couldn’t.”