Jasenka Muminovic-Kuric

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (WOMENSENEWS)–Being disowned at 21 was as frightening as it was heartbreaking for Jasenka Muminovic-Kuric.

Her mother had sent her on holiday to stop brooding, but she spent most of it by herself, deep in thought.

Eventually, she returned home to Sarajevo with her head covered by a scarf even though she knew that her family, and in particular her ex-Communist father, would detest her decision.

There may be fewer headscarves in Sarajevo than in the immigrant neighborhoods of London or Berlin, but many young women walk through the tiny capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina wearing the headscarf most of their mothers spurned at their age.

They contribute to the harmonious diversity of the street scene here, where different expressions of Islam mingle with men in shorts and women in short skirts in this country of 4 million. Muslims, 40 percent of the population, live alongside Serbian Orthodox and Croat Catholic citizens.

The Ottoman Empire introduced its religion into the heart of Europe 600 years ago but as a member state of Communist Yugoslavia, secularism was promoted in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the brutal 1992-95 war, Muslim Bosnians in Sarajevo turned to the mosques as a lifeline in a valley plagued by snipers. Religion’s restored status remains more than 13 years after the Dayton Peace Accord.

The country has signed an agreement with the European Union that will eventually lead to formal negotiations for membership, and EU peacekeepers are still present despite tangible progress after the war. On July 11, 307 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys were reburied at a memorial site. The scars from the war are still raw and identification along ethnic, rather than national, lines prevails.

Quest for Calm Led to Scarf

For Muminovic-Kuric, becoming more religious came as part of a quest for inner calm. As a young psychology student she used to party and drink but the lifestyle wound up leaving an empty, unsettled feeling.

“Generally young people are looking for some kind of spirituality,” says Sadika Aydic, editor in chief of Zehra, a magazine for Muslim women with a readership of around 20,000. “Young people are tired of materialism.”

Muminovic-Kuric says her family’s hostility to her embrace of religion stems from the days of secular communism.

While Jasenka, who works as a teacher, sees no conflict with modernity or equality in her choice, she knows there is a belief that religious Muslim women are fettered in their roles as wives and mothers. In the former Yugoslav countries, that jars with the egalitarian work ethic promoted under communism.

Six years ago when she covered her hair, her father, a retired civil servant, refused to speak to her and withdrew all financial help while she was still studying. “The most important people in my life wouldn’t support me,” she says sadly.

The stress and uncertainty propelled her to ask her boyfriend to marry her. Now, her 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter have helped heal the family rift. Her father and younger sister, who does not wear the headscarf, to this day refuse to speak to her about Islam.

Vibrant Tradition

Muminovic-Kuric discussed her decision to cover her head in Sarajevo’s old town one sunny afternoon, speaking in flawless English in the cafe of the Ottoman hostel Mohica Han. In accordance with Bosnian tradition, Muminovic-Kuric’s striped, purple headscarf is vibrant compared to the black ones being sold in a Muslim-fashion shop a few streets away.

Although she says she doesn’t aspire to wear a lengthier, cloak-like hijab, which can be worn with an accompanying niqab to cover everything except the eyes, she expresses sartorial appreciation of a chocolate brown version a friend picked up abroad. Some link such foreign fashions to the foreign soldiers who came to fight in the war and defend Bosnian Muslims, then settled here and became citizens.

A year ago the government revoked the citizenships of about 400 Bosnian men believed to have been promoting Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam predominant in Saudi Arabia.

Some Sarajevans call young, trendy women with headscarves “wahhababes,” an amalgamation of “babe” and “wahhabi.” Women who wear the hijab with the niqab are derogatorily called “ninjas.”

A niqab-wearing friend of Muminovic-Kuric was once confronted by an angry woman who tugged at her black clothing and exclaimed, “I’m a Muslim too! What do you think you’re doing?” She says this shows a concern among more moderate believers that they are looked down upon, but says that opinion is never expressed by her more religious friends. For her, being religious is a personal choice in a democratic society rather than a prescription of how others should live.

Some women who practice Islam abide by the stricture against working alongside men, which limits their professional options.

Employment Hard to Find

Only one of Muminovic-Kuric’s niqab-wearing friends works.

Finding employment was also difficult for her. With experience as a radio DJ, she applied unsuccessfully to several media jobs. She attributes part of her bad luck to discrimination on account of her headscarf, but unemployment is high in general in Europe and in particular for people under 25. Youth unemployment in Bosnia-Herzegovina is double the national average, according to the World Bank.

“I don’t think you’d get a job if you showed up to a job interview with a scarf,” says Nedim Cetovic, 32, of his own employer, the United Nations. His mother wears a scarf, his wife does not.

Economically, Bosnia-Herzegovina struggles, and a third of young people expressed a wish to emigrate in a recent study by Oxford Research International. A 2006 report from the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, an EU agency in Vienna, Austria, found that Muslims across Europe perceive an “Islamophobia” that results in discrimination. In that climate, the headscarf has become a potent symbol.

Aida Ramic, 24, whose family fled to the United States when the war started, sprinkles her conversation with observations from the Quran and the hadith–sayings of the prophet–as she chats while visiting family in Sarajevo.

She says she encounters more prejudice for her beliefs in Bosnia-Herzegovina than at home in Des Moines, Iowa, where she works as a laboratory technician.

As she talks, her Bosnian American husband is nearby, playing with their 3-year-old daughter in the courtyard of the imposing King Fahd mosque, which was built by the Saudis after the war. While she wears a black scarf and modest clothing, he sports the traditional long beard, combat shorts and a T-shirt that says “Don’t panic, I’m a Muslim!”

Ann Tornkvist, born in Bahrain, studied print journalism and photojournalism at Columbia University. She has written for several American and Swedish magazines and for Le Griot, a Harlem-based West African community newspaper. Her photos have been published in the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor and extensively online.

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