Bosnia and Herzegovina: The veil comes down, again

In 1950 Sarajevo's local parliament introduced a law to ban veils "with the aim of removing the centuries old tradition of oppressing the female population," but today many daughters and granddaughters of these women have put the hijab back on again.
It was 1950, towards the end of September, when hundreds of Muslim women came on to the streets of Bosnian capital Sarajevo and ceremonially took off their veils. The symbolic act was intended to mark the end of an era when they left their homes 'covered'.
The local parliament had then introduced a law to ban veils "with the aim of removing the centuries old tradition of oppressing the female population." But in today's Sarajevo, many daughters and granddaughters of these women have put the hijab back on again, the 'cover' as it is called in Bosnia.

"Hijab is a matter of choice," Fahira Fejzic Cengic from the Faculty of Political Science in Sarajevo recently wrote in a local magazine. "I decided to wear it, fully aware of all positive and negative consequences."

Wearing a veil is not an issue if a woman chooses to, Cengic said, "but it is a problem in certain countries where women are forced to do so."

She took to traditional Islamic clothes and the veil during the 1992-95 war when former Yugoslavia fell apart. The conflict between Bosniak Muslims, who make half the population of Bosnia, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats took more than 100,000 lives, mostly of local Muslims of Slav origin.

Post-war scars run deep in a country where the three groups live separately. Capital Sarajevo is almost 80 percent Muslim now, and the veil is very visible here.

Some women call the veil a return to tradition and a matter of choice. Those who oppose it call it a hangover of the war days when Bosniak Muslims received support from major Islamic countries, and were asked to respect Islamic laws in return. Aid organisations from Islamic countries looked after widows, and demanded strict respect of Islamic laws in return. Aid the women continue to receive often exceeds average salary by far.

But not all women call it a matter of choice. "This (covering) was not a matter of choice for me or my two young daughters," a 45-year-old woman from the northern Bosnian town Tuzla who gave her name as A.N. told IPS.

"My husband was killed in Srebrenica in 1995 and I was left with four children, no income, no skills. The aid I receive means we can live decently, but I have to respect the religious laws. My daughters are attending a religious school for free, and my sons will study for free either in Sarajevo or in any big Muslim country."

She and her children survived the worst massacre committed by Bosnian Serbs during the war, when they killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys after overrunning Srebrenica enclave in July 1995.

While Muslims in Bosnia suffered from war, those living in the southwestern part of Serbia, Sandzak, led a more peaceful life. But veils and traditional long coats are a common sight here too in springtime and summer on the streets of the biggest town Novi Pazar, with a population of some 52,000.

'Islamic' ways are clearly seeing a revival. Leading Bosnian politicians have sought to introduce Islamic laws, including polygamy, but the moves were rejected in parliament. That did not stop religious leader Muharem Zukorlic from taking a second wife.

Here the veil seems often a matter of choice. "I feel safer after I decided to wear a cover, which I chose in order to show my religious beliefs," 28-year-old Aisa N. told IPS. She works in a state-owned company and says her decision did surprise many.

"I feel that many people approach me with more respect now, it seems I got some new self-respect," she adds.

However, many people in Novi Pazar view the new-old tradition as the influence of neighbouring Bosnia and Islamic countries.

"They have put their foot into the Balkans doors among Slav Muslims," a local textile factory owner told IPS. "This can be a springboard of a kind to reach the West. Sandzak was always a conservative area, but we were not religious fanatics. Now we have Wahhabis (a strict orthodox Muslim sect originating in Saudi Arabia) among us and many people fear they can cause a lot of trouble."

Vesna Peric Zimonjic
21 November 2006