War brought Bosnian Muslim women back to Islam

Sarajevo, Bosnia - Film director Aida Begic, a Bosnian Muslim, rediscovered religion when she was trying to rebuild her life after the country's devastating war.

"I was raised in total freedom, not burdened by tradition," said the 30-year old. She is the first woman in her family to wear the headscarf since her great-grandmother.

Although most Muslim girls in Bosnia follow fashion, drink alcohol, smoke and socialise freely, they also increasingly observe fasts and religious holidays. Some, like Begic, choose to wear the headscarf over their Western brand clothes.

"People were surprised, commented, asked questions. Some found it totally unacceptable. But it is absolutely my own choice," she said while waiting for the start of an avant-garde theatre play in Sarajevo.

Bosnian Muslims are Europe's only indigenous Muslim population, Slavs who adopted Islam during Ottoman rule starting in the 15th century. They traditionally practised a tolerant, "gentle" form of Islam that adapted official doctrine to local customs.

Often blond and blue-eyed, they look similar to the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs with whom they share Bosnia. Before the war they were mostly atheist, classified as just another ethnic group in multi-cultural socialist Yugoslavia.

"Most Bosnian Muslim women have been highly secular, well educated and shared their history and heritage with Christians and Jews," said Dino Abazovic, a sociology professor at Sarajevo University. "They also lived in a territory that is far away from other Islamic countries."

But most of the 100 000 casualties of the 1992-95 war were Muslims. So was the majority of rape victims, most targeted by Bosnian Serb forces. The brutality of the conflict reinforced survivors' sense of identity, almost as a form of resistance.

"Whether or not women in Bosnia feel like Muslims, many are still incredibly reluctant to objectify their identities as it is often done in the West," said Aida Hozic, a Bosnia-born International Relations professor at the University of Florida.

"Despite centuries of tradition, many are still learning how to be Muslims, since it is others who violently taught them to feel that way."

Although strengthened by the war, Islamic identity is still a hot topic in Bosnia because of the inroads made in the religious landscape by radicals from the Middle East and North Africa.

Hundreds of Muslim volunteers from those regions came to Bosnia in the early 1990s to fight what they saw as a war of faiths, taking up arms to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters against the Croats and Serbs.

Most stayed and married local women, and now live in strict Islamic communities in remote rural areas. Bosnia has already revoked hundreds of citizenships it originally granted to fighters after the end of the war, a move seen as part of an anti-terrorism drive requested by ally the United States.

While defended as a return to tradition by some, the headscarf and veil were also seen as a throwback to the early days after the war, when Islamic aid agencies gave pensions to widows in return for strict adherence to Islamic custom.

"Covered women were first seen as an exotic symbol of otherness and then turned into a symbol of a political threat, linked to terrorism," said anthropologist Elissa Helms, who has done extensive research in Bosnia after the war.

Some urban Muslims still feel uncomfortable about being identified primarily by their religion and want to defend the easy-going multiculturalism that made Sarajevo a haven for all faiths for centuries.

"I don't accept divisions according to nationality or religion," said Fadila Nura Haver, a popular Bosnian Muslim author and a single mother of three.

Her striking blue eyes sparkled as she gestured vividly, relaying how her son recently married a non-Muslim woman.

Although she said she fears extremist militant nationalism and religious fundamentalism the most, she was not opposed to people finding peace and comfort in religion.

"If two prayers mean the same to them as two glasses of wine after dinner to me, then each of us should enjoy our drinks," she said.