“This is a great victory of democracy. My fellow citizens showed a great open spirit because they elected me first as a woman but also as a woman who wears a veil,” said Amra Babic, elected Sunday in the town of Visoko.
“This is a model for Europe but even beyond, for the East and the West which meet here in Bosnia,” she told AFP at the local branch of her party, still plastered with her campaign posters.
Two days after the vote, Babic, wearing a scarf covering her hair, ears and neck, was busy receiving by telephone congratulations for her victory. Others were coming in to bring her bouquets of flowers.
“Islam is very clear regarding the woman. It reserves for her a place in the public life and all those who interpret it correct know that this is the way it is,” said Babic, who belongs to Bosnia’s main Muslin party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
However, she is confident that the place for her country is “among modern European states.”
“I believe that my headscarf should not be a hindrance…. Europe will understand that it has to do with people who respect their own identity, but who are tolerant enough to respect the rights of others,” she said.
Babic, a mother of three and an economist, served as finance minister in the central canton of Zenica prior to running for mayor.
Muslims are the biggest religious group in Bosnia, making up some 40% of its 3.8 million population. Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs account for 31% while the traditionally Roman Catholic Croats represent 10%.
Bosnian Muslims are Sunni, introduced in the Balkans in the 15th century by the Ottomans.
The hijab was banned under communism when Bosnia was part of the federal Yugoslavia from 1945 until the early 1990s. A number of Muslims in Bosnian nowadays wear the hijab, although most women do not cover their heads.
“I will never abuse politics for religion. If I have the strength to protect my own rights, I will find the strength to protect the rights of others,” she said.
Having lost her husband in the 1992-1995 inter-ethnic war in Bosnia, Babic has for years led an association of families of Muslim fighters killed in the conflict.
“I put on the veil after my husband’s death,” she recalls, adding that the religion had helped her to overcome the loss.
“My religion tells me that everything that happens is God’s will. It helped me to concentrate my energy and survive. My sons are my greatest motivation,”
There are many people out there who will think I’m crazy for saying that the wearing of a headscarf (or hijab) is a woman’s right. That’s because Western society views Muslim women as oppressed and the hijab as a symbol of their oppression. We assume that the only reason women wear the hijab is because their men require them to and that they will discard them as soon as they’re liberated.
While I don’t doubt that there are some Muslim women who dress the way they do solely because of the requirements of their culture, who would prefer to not wear the hijab, I believe that the majority of Muslim women who wear the hijab feel quite comfortable doing so. In fact, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I first encountered women wearing hijabs in my job, I was curious and dubious. I wondered if they resented having to wear them and doubted that they would if they had a choice. I had always seen the head scarf as depersonalizing. I thought that it took away a woman’s right to look as attractive as she wanted to. It seemed to me that Muslim men insisted that their women cover themselves in order to keep them from being sexually enticing, as if men couldn’t control themselves if they saw a woman’s hair or the outlines of her body.
I also thought that I would never be able to tell the women apart. That reflects a prejudice on my part which I now realize is completely unfounded. The women still have faces, for God’s sakes! And their hijabs are all different, some of them really beautiful. I realize that there are Muslim societies where the women are required to wear all black and cover themselves from head to toe. (For a discussion about this click here.) But the Muslim women I’ve gotten to know are from Libya and are here in the States studying to be doctors. Through them, I’ve been able to see a different side of being a Muslim and a woman.
I’ve been reading the book Who Speaks For Islam? which is based on Gallup polls that have been administered worldwide. Western women see Muslim women as needing to be “liberated,” but the majority of Muslim women say they are comfortable with their lot in life. They would like to be able to vote without outside influence, work at a job for which they are qualified and be able to drive. But their pressing concerns are lack of unity among Muslims, extremism, high unemployment and political corruption. (Click here to get to a .pdf flyer about Muslim women.)
The wearing of hijab does not imply the same thing to Muslim women as it does to non-Muslim women. (For instance, the word hijab has come to mean modesty, privacy and morality. See here for more information about hijab dress.) We need to stop assuming that wearing the hijab means a woman is a second-class citizen. The polls show that the majority of Muslim women feel sorry for Western women because of the way they are degraded by the men who treat them as sex objects. Seeing as how feminists also object to women being treated as sex objects, instead of judging Muslim women for wearing hijabs maybe we ought to wear them ourselves, as a show of solidarity.