VISOKO, Bosnia-Hercegovina: A new woman mayor in Bosnia who is the first in her country and the continent to wear the hijab headscarf, said Tuesday her election was "a model for Europe and Islam."
"This is a great victory of democracy. My fellow citizens showed a great open spirit because they elected me first as a woman but also as a woman who wears a veil," respecting Islam, said Amra Babic, elected Sunday in the town of Visoko.
"This is a model for Europe but even beyond, for the East and the West which meet here in Bosnia," she told AFP at the local branch of her party, still plastered with her campaign posters.
Babic, 43, who regularly wears the hijab, won 30 percent of the votes in the mayoral race in Visoko, a town of some 40,000 people near the capital of Sarajevo.
Two days after the vote, Babic, wearing a scarf covering her hair, ears and neck, was busy receiving by telephone congratulations for her victory. Others were coming in to bring her bouquets of flowers.
"Islam is very clear regarding the woman. It reserves for her a place in the public life and all those who interpret it correct know that this is the way it is," said Babic, who belongs to Bosnia's main Muslin party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
However, she is confident that the place for her country is "among modern European states."
"I believe that my headscarf should not be a hindrance.... Europe will understand that it has to do with people who respect their own identity, but who are tolerant enough to respect the rights of others," she said.
Babic, a mother of three and an economist, served as finance minister in the central canton of Zenica prior to running for mayor.
Muslims are the biggest religious group in Bosnia, making up some 40 percent of its 3.8 million population. Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs account for 31 percent while the traditionally Roman Catholic Croats represent 10 percent.
Bosnian Muslims are Sunni Hanafi and mostly supporters of a moderate Islam, introduced in the Balkans in the 15th century by the Ottomans.
The hijab was banned under communism when Bosnia was part of the federal Yugoslavia from 1945 until the early 1990s. A number of Muslims in Bosnian nowadays wear the hijab, although most women do not cover their heads.
"I will never abuse politics for religion. If I have the strength to protect my own rights, I will find the strength to protect the rights of others," she said.
Having lost her husband in the 1992-1995 inter-ethnic war in Bosnia, Babic has for years led an association of families of Muslim fighters killed in the conflict.
"I put on the veil after my husband's death," she recalls, adding that the religion had helped her to overcome the loss.
"My religion tells me that everything that happens is God's will. It helped me to concentrate my energy and survive. My sons are my greatest motivation," she said.