VISOKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina – When Amra Babic walks down the streets of the central Bosnian town of Visoko wearing her Muslim headscarf, men sitting in outdoor cafes instantly rise from their chairs, fix their clothes and put out their cigarettes.
The respect is only natural: Babic is their new mayor.
The 43 year-old economist has blazed a trail in this war-scarred Balkan nation by becoming its first hijab-wearing mayor, and possibly the only one in Europe. Her victory comes as governments elsewhere in Europe debate laws to ban the Muslim veil, and Turkey, another predominantly Islamic country seeking EU membership, maintains a strict policy of keeping religious symbols out of public life.
For Babic, the electoral triumph is proof that observance of Muslim tradition is compatible with Western democratic values.
"It's a victory of tolerance," the wartime widow says. "We have sent a message out from Visoko. A message of tolerance, democracy and equality."
She sees no contradiction in the influences that define her life.
"I am the East and I am the West," she declares. "I am proud to be a Muslim and to be a European. I come from a country where religions and cultures live next to each other. All that together is my identity."
For centuries, Bosnia has been a cultural and religious mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats who occasionally fought each but most of the time lived peacefully together. Then came the Balkans wars of the 1990s in which ethnic hatreds bottled up by Yugoslavia's communist regime exploded as the federation disintegrated. Bosnia's Muslim majority fell victim to the genocidal rampage of ethnic Serbs seeking to form a breakaway state.
As an economist and local politician, Babic has played an active role in Bosnia's emergence from the ashes.
She was a bank auditor and served as the regional finance minister before running for mayor. Now Babic feels she is ready to run this town of 45,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims, for the next four years.
She wants to fix the infrastructure, partly ruined by the Bosnian 1992-95 war and partly by post-war poverty. And she plans to make Visoko attractive for investment, encouraging youth to start small businesses. It's all part of her strategy to fight the town's unemployment rate of over 25 percent.
"We are proud to have elected her," says Muris Karavdic, 38, a local small business owner. "It doesn't matter whether she covewrs her head or not. She is smart and knows finances."
Babic sees her victory as breaking multiple barriers, from bigotry against women in a traditionally male-dominated society to stigmatization of the hijab that sprang up under the communist regime.
"Finally we have overcome our own prejudices," she says. "The one about women in politics, then the one about hijab-wearing women — and even the one about hijab-wearing women in politics."
Babic, of the center-right Party for Democratic Action, decided to wear her headscarf after her husband was killed fighting in the Bosnian Army, and views it as "a human right." Religion and hard work helped her overcome his death, raise their three boys alone and pursue a career.
Babic says she is ready to work around the clock and prove people in Visoko made the right choice. This, she hopes, may clear the way for more women to follow her path.
By Bosnian law, at least 30 percent of the candidates in any election have to be women, but voters have been reluctant to give women a chance. Only five of the 185 mayors elected on October 7 are women.
Signs of the respect Babic commands in Visoko abound.
Election posters still up around town have been scrawled with vampire teeth, mustaches or spectacles; none of Babic's posters bear such graffiti. Older hijab-wearing women stop in front of her pictures as if hypnotized by her determined blue eyes. Some are seen crying and caressing the image on the wall.
"They probably look at my picture and think of their lost opportunities," Babic says. "They probably think: Go, girl! You do it if I couldn't."