Hijab-wearing mayor breaks barriers

14/11/2012

The election of the first headscarved woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina sends an important message to Europe.

By Ana Lovaković for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 14/11/12

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Amra Babic is the first headscarved woman to be elected to a political position in BiH. [AFP]

Amra Babić, a 43-year-old single mother of three boys, was elected mayor of Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina last month, becoming the only hijab-wearing mayor in Europe.

The victory shows that one "woman is not, and will not allow [herself] to be discriminated [against] because of her dress or commitment to freedom of expression of belonging to one nation, religion and tradition. I hope that Europe will figure out they are positive values," Babić told SETimes.

Her election comes as several governments in Europe are debating laws to ban the Muslim veil. Turkey, another predominantly Islamic country seeking EU membership, maintains a strict policy of keeping religious symbols out of public life.

"The election of a Muslim woman mayor wearing a headscarf in Europe shows the importance of judging people based on conduct and relevant experience rather than on the religious symbols that they wear," Lydia Gall, a researcher for the international organisation Human Rights Watch, told SETimes.

"This is an important message to European countries where headscarf bans are in force or under consideration as such bans interfere with individual choice, privacy and self-expression and constitute discrimination on the basis of religion, and in the case of headscarves, gender," Gall said.

Women represent 52 percent of BiH's population, but they still belong to marginalised groups in the public and social processes.

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 five of the 135 mayors elected last month are women.

Srđan Dizdarević, former president of the Helsinki Committee for BiH, told SETimes that Babić's election shows that prejudices are being outgrown. "It is a sign that we are moving forward and that one's appearance should not affect the assessment of skills and knowledge."

Babić said she has never had a negative experience due to her hijab, which she chose to wear 20 years ago when her husband was killed in the conflict.

Aware that her election win has drawn local and international interest, Babic said she will use that attention to promote more equal status for women in today's society.

"Of course women deserve equal treatment. Women make up more than half of the population, hence the same number of human resources. We must learn to give a chance to the best, most capable, most worthy. Regardless of their gender or what they wear," Babic said.

She said her political activity -- she has been a Social Democratic Action (SDA) party member since 2004 -- is a reaction to her dissatisfaction with the overall situation in BH society.

"All dissatisfied people have two options: to sit and criticise or to do something and try to make different and better," Babić told SETimes.

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As mayor, she hopes to spark more mutual respect in the local community, synchronised actions and work for the common good.

"I expect strategically thinking and decision making, a lot more work and dedication of these positive effects and synergy. I expect better Visoko. I want to fix the infrastructure and ensure economic growth and development, job creation, stabilizing the budget and transparency of expenditure of public funds, transformation of local government in public service, more focusing on youth issues," Babić said.

Residents of Visoko believe in their choice.

"She is young, smart and capable woman. Who cares what she wears on her head? We do not notice it," said Hajro Redžepagić, an unemployed economist from Visoko.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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