The New York Times: A Message of Tolerance From Bosnia

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 respect is only natural: Ms. Babic is the new mayor of the central Bosnian town.

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 Ms. Babic, the electoral triumph is proof that observance of Muslim tradition is compatible with Western democratic values.
“It’s a victory of tolerance,” the wartime widow said in an interview. “We have sent a message out from Visoko. A message of tolerance, democracy and equality.”
She sees no contradiction in the influences that define her life.
“I am the East and I am the West,” she said. “I am proud to be a Muslim and to be a European. I come from a country where religions and cultures live next to each other. All that together is my identity.”

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.

Then came the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in which ethnic hatred bottled up by Yugoslavia’s Communist regime exploded as the federation disintegrated. Bosnia’s Muslim majority fell victim to the genocidal rampage of ethnic Serbs seeking to form a breakaway state.
Croats and Muslims, formally allies against the Serbs, also fought one another in areas where they were neighbors.
Muslims in Bosnia are Sunni Hanafi and support a moderate Islam that was brought to them by the Ottoman Turks’ conquests in the Balkans in the 15th century. Nowadays, only a small number of women cover their heads.
As an economist and local politician, Ms. Babic has played an active role in Bosnia’s emergence from the ashes after the 1992-95 war that took more than 100,000 lives and displaced millions of people.
She was a bank auditor and served as the regional finance minister before running for mayor. Now, she said, she feels ready to run this town of 45,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims, for the next four years.
She wants to fix the infrastructure, partly ruined by the war and partly the victim of postwar poverty. And she plans to make Visoko, about 15 kilometers, or 9 miles, northwest of Sarajevo, attractive for investment, encouraging young people to start small businesses. It is all part of her strategy to fight the town’s 25 percent unemployment rate.
“We are proud to have elected her,” said Muris Karavdic, 38, the owner of a small business. “It doesn’t matter whether she covers her head or not. She is smart and knows finances.”

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.

For centuries in Bosnia, Muslim women did not go to school or expose themselves much outside of the house. Staying home, caring for the house and for children was considered a matter of decency.
During the decades of Communism, primary education was suddenly prescribed by law, and the perception of female decency was turned upside down: Respectable women had a university education and were financially independent. A head scarf became a symbol of backwardness, of being uneducated and under pressure from conservative husbands.
But Ms. Babic covered her hair after her husband was killed as a soldier of the Bosnian Army during the war, and she views the practice as “a human right.” Religion and work helped her overcome his death, raise their three boys alone and forge a career.
Her election victory has several layers, she said.

“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.”

Ms. Babic, of the center-right Party of Democratic Action, said she was ready to work around the clock and prove people in Visoko made the right choice. This, she said, may clear the way for more women to follow her path.

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.

In Visoko, signs of respect for Ms. Babic abound.

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.

“It makes me feel like I was a folk singer,” she said, referring to entertainers widely revered in the Balkans.
Then she noticed older hijab-wearing women stop in front of her pictures as if hypnotized by her determined blue eyes. Some were even seen crying and caressing the image on the wall.

“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.”