Muslim women in Sarajevo: ‘Our starting point is a prejudice against us, this makes us stronger’

These veiled and unveiled Bosnian Muslim women are more consciously approaching their bodies than most other women. Often the headscarf is discussed as a political symbol, but rarely debates touch upon the personal motivation of the women and how the sense of community influences their choice. MO* organized a focus group with young Bosnian women from Sarajevo.

© Pieter Stockmans

Nedžma Botonjić and Amina Tucakovic

What if we would shift the focus of the debate from discouraging the headscarf to encouraging reflection and freedom of choice? Would it make young women stronger and more resilient in our society, as opposed to just prohibiting the headscarf? With these questions in mind, I visited Nahla in Sarajevo, a feminist community and educational centre.

Nahla wants to empower the position of women in Bosnian society. The scope of their activities is wide: language classes, psychological assistance for self-development and upbringing of children, computer classes, assistance in finding a job, administration, media and communication, inter-religious dialogue, summer schools for children, scholarship programmes and clubs for youth.

The founders of Nahla are Muslim women. ‘To pass on knowledge, to make women independent, to increase their self-confidence and participation in society, this is a mission of our faith,’ says the director Sehija Dedović. ‘We are not Islamic in the sense of promoting Islam. We are Islamic because we put our values into practice by doing good for the whole community, for all women without distinction. In this way we give a positive contribution from Islam to the whole society, without imposing our religion itself.’

Reactions in the box to the right came from non-Muslims. Now let’s ask the Muslim women themselves and take the time to dig into their motivations and inner processes which lead to such a choice.

Reactions of readers after the publication of our report about World Hijab Day in Bosnia:
► World Hijab Day would send a stronger message about freedom of choice if all women with headscarves would not wear it for one day, to support the women who are robbed of this choice by the patriarchy.
► The trivialization of the headscarf in the West, supposedly in solidarity with Muslims, is a threat to the coexistence of people from different cultures.
► If so many women inadvertently strengthen Islamism, that behaviour should better be explicitly prohibited. Choosing to be oppressed: strange times.
► You can perfectly be a devout Muslim without that symbol. Faith is not about external characteristics. The headscarf as a symbol of free choice? How can you even suggest this, if you know that women worldwide are forced to veil themselves in many different ways?
I asked Dedović to invite the most talkative members of Nahla for a focus group, to find out how young Bosnian Muslim women deal with this controversial piece of cloth on their heads.

These women are students of international relations, law, mathematics, economics, philosophy and literature. They study at the University of Sarajevo and at two Turkish universities in Sarajevo: International University of Sarajevo and International Burch University. Especially religious Muslims study at these universities.

Amina Šljivo Bećić: My father is imam, my mother teaches religion. My family is religious. During communism they were pressured, but they didn’t give up their fate. Yet, my sister and me don’t wear a headscarf.

I do, however, consciously deal with my appearance, and that is the actual idea behind the headscarf. I have the feeling I am applying these values. For example, I don’t wear mini skirts and I don’t visit public beaches.

If you wear a headscarf without being conscious about that decision, are you violating the rules of Islam?

Nedžma Botonjić: Yes. But once you’ve made the decision, the headscarf becomes part of your identity. I can no longer imagine how it was to go out without a headscarf.

© Pieter Stockmans

In this article: Ema Šetkić Džananović (first from the left), Nedžma Botonjić (second from the right, sitting), Ammina Basovic (second from the right, standing), Amina Tucakovic (first from the right)

Some people say the headscarf is symbol. Then it is easier to prohibit the headscarf. Educational institutions in Belgium are afraid that girls would impose the headscarf on others, by saying, for example, that they’re not good Muslims if they don’t wear the headscarf.

Nudžejma Imamovic: Then these girls don’t know their own faith, because one of the most important rules in Islam is that you cannot judge other people.

So, if we would increase their knowledge and teach the girls that they cannot put pressure on their friends, would it still be necessary to prohibit the headscarf?

Nedžma Botonjić: To prohibit something is never a good way to solve a problem. You have to convince them, to engage into dialogue and provide them with knowledge.

‘Shall I tell you how obsessive I was in trying not to be pressured?’

Ema Šetkić Džananović: Shall I tell you how obsessive I was in trying not to be pressured? Just eight months ago I started to wear the headscarf, but only after one year of reflection. During that year I didn’t talk to anyone about it, neither with my parents nor with my fiancé.

Some people gave me Islamic texts and spoke about the headscarf, but I felt they were pushing me to wear it. I didn’t know enough about Islam. But I felt something was missing.

I never told my friends that I pray. This was my own business; nobody had to know about it. But gradually I cherished a desire to be seen as a Muslim. I didn’t want to hide it any longer. Not because I felt the pressure from others, but because I feel liberated now that I can express it without complexes. I feel liberated of hidden doubts. I was in need of an identity.

That’s the opposite of coercion. On the other hand, pressure between Muslim women does exist. To wear the headscarf out of fear for others or God, instead of out of love, is not the right path?

Ema Šetkić Džananović: Let me make it even clearer. I said to my partner: ‘Don’t say a word about the headscarf, because otherwise I will feel that you expect it from me, and then I can’t do it.’ Essentially, the headscarf is about freedom of choice, not about oppression or coercion. I couldn’t imagine standing in front of God, saying that I started to wear the headscarf for someone other than God.

Ammina Basovic: My parents are not religious. They are only Muslims by name. They look back at Yugoslavia with nostalgia, at the equality, brotherhood and unity of Tito. Until today they think it was better back then, without religion.

I have a lot of friends and I go out often, although I never smoked or drank alcohol. But I often felt empty and meaningless. One of my friends gave me books and I learned a lot about Islam. This was not outside pressure, because it was me feeling this emptiness.

© Pieter Stockmans

Standing: Ammina Basovic (first from the left), Ema Šetkić Džananović (third from the left), Amina Tucakovic (first from the right). Sitting: Nedžma Botonjić (second from the right), Amina Šljivo Bećić (first from the right), Nudžejma Imamovic (first from the left) (talking in this article)

How did your parents react?

Ammina Basovic: ‘You will not be our daughter anymore,’ they said. ‘You won’t marry, you will not be able to study, you won’t find a job’. They were afraid I would be targeted because wearing the headscarf only gets you in trouble at the moment.

This sounds like girls who are oppressed because they don’t want to wear the headscarf. Girls who want to take off their headscarf to feel liberated, are also being targeted by a dominant society in several countries in the Middle-East. Do they deserve as much solidarity as girls who put on the headscarf and feel targeted by a dominant society?

‘I don’t care what women wear to work at top level. For all I care, they only wear underwear.’

Ammina Basovic: I don’t care what women wear to work at top level. For all I care, they only wear underwear. (Whole group laughs)

My parents want me to be successful. I study international relations. But I didn’t become another person just because I wear a headscarf. I have the same values as before. And I am as courageous and intelligent as before. I will prove the headscarf doesn’t have anything to do with having a successful job in international relations.

Amina Tucakovic: Ammina wears the headscarf and grew up in a non-religious family. I don’t wear a headscarf and grew up in a religious family. But I also grew up in this society and there, sometimes, I hear negative comments about the headscarf.

Our neighbours are against Islam. Every time I feel I want to represent and defend Islam, but I don’t know how. Before I have enough knowledge about Islam, I cannot wear the headscarf. As soon as we wear it, we represent Islam and we have to be able to defend it. Whatever you do, your deeds are equalized to your religion as a whole and your whole being is reduced to “Muslim”.

© Pieter Stockmans

Nedžma Botonjić and Amina Tucakovic

As soon as you wear the headscarf, you out yourself as a Muslim. Isn’t it difficult to take on the responsibility of a whole community?

Nedžma Botonjić: Yes. My father said: ‘Be careful, because as soon as you wear the headscarf, you are not just a girl anymore, but a Muslim girl. If you do something wrong now, nobody will talk about you in a neutral way anymore. “Look at what the daughter of Fouad did” will change into “look at what that Muslim did”.

Even in Bosnia people are afraid of Islam. It is a big responsibility, but it gives me satisfaction. I hope others can also experience such love and greatness.

Doesn’t every human, despite their religion, have the responsibility to act responsibly?

Nedžma Botonjić: But others don’t represent a community.

They do. There are a lot of communities besides religious ones. Humanist values, human rights, atheism. They’re all communities with moral values. Their followers represent their communities as much as Muslims do. And when members of the community abuse its values, others need to speak out, just as Muslims should speak out against violence in the name of Islam.

‘Of course everyone bears a responsibility for his community. But with Muslim women you immediately see they are Muslim.’

Amina Tucakovic: Yes, but atheists are not in the spotlight. When an atheist does something wrong, people are not talking about how bad atheism is. It’s the case with Islam, though. I want to know how I have to react when I am spoken to as a spokesperson for Islam. I don’t want to respond hatefully, yet I don’t want to remain silent either.

I want to say something constructive, something that will open the heart of the others. Of course everyone bears a responsibility for his community and even for the whole of humanity. But with Muslim women you immediately see they are Muslim. You don’t recognize atheists. They don’t have it written on their heads.

Nedžma Botonjić: Terrorism is usually not linked with other cultures, except with Islam.

The perpetrator of the attack on a mosque in Canada was an atheist extremist.

Ammina Basovic: And it was the first time a leader of the government spoke about a terrorist attack in such way.

Amina Tucakovic: We speak out against extremists who abuse Islam, and we would like to do that to a bigger audience. We would like to break through to mainstream media.

It is not easy. To reach a wide audience with our tolerant vision of Islam is important. People are not guilty for not knowing, media also have a responsibility to tell the full story, including our voices.

© Pieter Stockmans

Amina Tucakovic

In Belgium more and more young Muslims appear in the media, also girls with a headscarf. They show the headscarf is not an obstacle to making an important contribution to society. A lot of people don’t find this to be self-evident.

Nedžma Botonjić: Would people believe it if we would tell them wearing a headscarf makes us freer and stronger? In any case, it gave me more self-confidence. If we can succeed with this thing on our heads, the object of so much judging, then we can handle everything.

Our starting point is a prejudice against us, and so we need to prove ourselves twice at work and in society. A first time: to prove the headscarf is not an obstacle to do our work properly. A second time: to prove that we do our work well. This makes us strong women. We have to be the best just to be good.

Employers should know that girls with headscarves are the best employees who would do everything to prove themselves. Everyone can hire us immediately, hint. (Whole groups laughs).

Isn’t it exhausting to prove yourself to refute a prejudice?

Nedžma Botonjić: Yes, but I don’t care. My name means star, so I have to shine. (Whole group laughs).

‘Employers should know that girls with headscarves are the best employees who would do everything to prove themselves. Hint hint.’

You can write your name even in Arabic?

Nedžma Botonjić: I learnt Arabic at school; it’s a subject at Islamic schools. Just to be clear: it’s not a Quran school. It’s a normal secondary school, like you have “catholic schools”. With all subjects, also science.

In class we learn about Islam, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Hate in Bosnia doesn’t spring from religion but from nationalism.

We can fight hatred by becoming friends with others in all communities, and by studying each others’ identity. Then you learn not to fear differences, but to cherish them and become stronger yourself. Hate is born out of fear.

Ammina Basovic: I think parents have a big responsibility. They pass on their ideas and mistakes on to their children.

‘Education is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, not to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’ The Jewish American philosopher Hannah Arendt said this.

Ammina Basovic: I am accepted at the Catholic University of Lublin, in Poland. The Poles, who will get to know me, will get a positive image of Islam. The more I know about the others, the stronger I become. Over there I will renew myself and become stronger in my faith.

Some Muslims would be afraid to go study in Poland now, where the government is inciting islamophobia.

Ammina Basovic: Sometimes we are afraid of others because we’re afraid they will judge us. If people would judge less, this fear would reduce and there would be more exchange and communication. The more hatred, the higher the mental wall.

‘Europe will decide about our future. Do we choose conflict, or peace?’

That’s why it’s dangerous when politicians and media build walls between people. It becomes difficult to meet others as humans, without the focus on their identity, without having to talk continuously about beliefs.

Amina Tucakovic: We are living in hard, but crucial times. Europe will decide about our future. Will we allow hatred against Muslims to escalate, or regulate the position of Islam in Europe? That’s the choice we have in front of us. Do we choose conflict, or peace?

© Pieter Stockmans

The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo

After the focus group, the girls invited me to the open-door-day of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we walk together through the remains of Roman Times, when Bosnia was a part of the Roman province Illyricum. We say goodbye and the girls go admire the Sarajevo Haggada, a manuscript that contains the illustrated, original text of Pesach Haggada, a booklet which Jews read out loud at the beginning of Pesach. It’s one of the oldest Sephardic Haggada’s in the world, originated in Barcelona around 1350.

Translated from Dutch to English by Leander Papagianneas

LEES OOK

© Pieter Stockmans
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