Bosnian Muslim politician wages veiled fight against prejudice

Picture of Indira Sinanovic, first Bosnian woman wearing the niqab to run in local election in Bosnia, is seen on an election poster in Zavidovici, Bosnia and Herzegovina, September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic


Politicians across Europe are calling for a ban on the Islamic veil but Bosnian Muslim Indira Sinanovic is defying the trend as well as widespread prejudice in her own country, becoming the first fully-veiled woman here to run for public office.

Sinanovic, 37, wears the niqab – a garment that covers the hair and all the face apart from the eyes – and her aim if elected to the council in her central Bosnian hometown of Zavidovici is to battle prejudice and social exclusion.

Bosnia has no laws against the public wearing of the niqab and the burqa, clothes that have come to be associated with a fundamentalist reading of Islam, but a ban on court officials wearing headscarves has made Sinanovic and other activists wary.

“It’s the basic right of every citizen,” said the outspoken mother of two, speaking ahead of Sunday’s election in the office of IML (Islam My Life) Television in the town of Zenica, where she works as a journalist.

“(If elected) I would try to turn attention to the people who live in poverty, to be their voice in the municipal council and push for projects to improve their social status,” she said.

Bosnia has one of Europe’s largest indigenous Muslim populations, a legacy of its centuries-long history as part of the Ottoman Empire, but prejudice against overt displays of religion is widespread and Sinanovic has borne her share of it.

Sinanovic, who wears a long black robe and hides her eyes behind glasses, says she herself has been called names in the street such as “Ninja” or “Terrorist” or has been told “Go to Afghanistan” and “Go to Syria”.

Islam has traditionally been very liberal in multi-ethnic Bosnia, which for nearly 50 years was part of officially atheist Yugoslavia, but attitudes have shifted since the three-year Bosnian war, when Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs fought a war of “ethnic cleansing” that cost 100,000 lives.

Poverty is still widespread 20 years later and Bosnia remains deeply divided between Serbs, Croats and the Muslim Bosniaks.

Arab mujahideen fighters who came to help their Bosniak co-religionists during the war brought more conservative habits with them, as did an influx of Saudi money after the war, much of which financed the building of traditionalist mosques.

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