Islamic headscarf's return reveals Bosnian divisions

Sarajevo, Bosnia - After being banned for decades by Yugoslav communist rulers, the Islamic headscarf is making a comeback to the streets of post-war Bosnia, exposing deep ethnic divisions.

Although still a minority in Bosnian society, women choosing to don the headscarf have become a common sight on the streets of the capital Sarajevo, unlike before the 1992 to 1995 war when it was a rarity.

Headscarves in the former communist Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was a part, were worn almost exclusively by elderly women in rural areas, more out of respect for tradition than as a sign of religious feeling.

However, today in regions mainly populated by Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, the wearing of headscarves is still frowned upon as it was in the communist era when displays of religious symbols were unwelcome.

"It is the principle of the majority people: one religion on one territory," complained Sarajevo professor Nermina Sacic, arguing for secular traditions to prevail in Bosnia's different ethnic regions.

Sarajevo, where she is professor at the Political Science Faculty, has had a strong Muslim majority since the Bosnian war.

Out of Bosnia's 3.8 million inhabitants, some 40 percent are Muslims, 31 percent Orthodox Christians, and 10 percent Catholics.

In other Muslim-populated parts of the former Yugoslavia, notably in Kosovo and southern Serbia, there is a relatively relaxed approach toward the issue of religious clothing.

However in Bosnia, especially in areas where ethnic groups are forced to live in close quarters, the issue has caused tensions in recent months.

In one case, in the ethnically divided northern town of Brcko, issues of secularism and freedom of choice surfaced in a conflict between a Serb teacher and a headscarved Muslim psychologist in an elementary school.

"My colleague refused my regular visit to his class because of my headscarf," said psychologist Semsa Ahmetspahic.

"I did not insist on it because Brcko has a specific environment. We try to avoid situations which could lead to conflict," she said.

Brcko and its surrounding region populated by Muslims, Serbs, and Croats was proclaimed a special district in 2000 by the international community overseeing peace in Bosnia.

It is autonomous from the country's two semi-independent entities - Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation - and is ruled by its own multi-ethnic institutions.

The dispute was debated at the city's council where a Serb deputy, Milan Puric, called for regulations banning the Islamic headscarf in public institutions.

He said that Muslim deputies had already stated they "would do everything possible to ensure that in the future there would be even more headscarved women in institutions."

Angered by their attitudes, Puric stressed the issue "once again highlighted ethnic divisions" in the country.

"We have not reached that level of tolerance yet," Puric said.

"But if I am wrong, then it should be all or nothing, without any discrimination," Puric said, adding that would mean Orthodox Church icons and crosses should also be allowed into classrooms.

In Brcko schools, only Bosnia's coat of arms is displayed, unlike other parts of the country where religious symbols are displayed in many classrooms.

This, despite all ethnic and religious symbols being banned from public institutions under Bosnian law, which also prescribes no specific dress code.

"The fact that girls wear mini-skirts does not bother me, but I expect that people have respect for me," said Alma, a 25-year-old wearing a maroon headscarf and a long black dress.

Walking through Sarajevo's Political Science Faculty, where most students are dressed in western-style clothes and there are only a few headscarved women, Alma stressed that for her to be able to observe the Islamic dress code at the university represented no more than "respect for human rights."

"Being headscarved, I could not study in France, where basic rights are being violated, while here it is possible and normal," she added.

In 2004, France banned the wearing of headscarves and other religious symbols at its schools.

Her professor, Sacic, agreed that "bans never lead to any good," but added that the application of secular principles would be positive.

"It would be so because of everything that happened here" during the war, Sacic said.

The Bosnian conflict pitted Muslims and Croats against Serbs, but additionally a period of fighting between the Muslims and Croats from 1993 to 1994.

Religious sentiment played a part in the three-and-a-half year Bosnian war, which left up to 200,000 dead and forced around 2 million people to flee their homes.

A professor at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, Adnan Silajdzic, disagreed with Sacic, stressing "the principle of secularism cannot be applied on Bosnia because Muslims are not a minority."

"Bosnian people ... are modern but they care about their spiritual traditions and have a strong religious spirit," said Silajdzic.

"Is it good or bad? We could discuss that. But as long as it is like that, the reality should be respected."