Turkish Students Take Refugee in Sarajevo

Banned from wearing headscarves on campus at their own country’s universities, Turkish women are finding sanctuary in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Zehra has an unusual reason for coming to study in Bosnia. It is not the academic reputation of Sarajevo’s political science faculty that attracted her, so much as its relaxed attitude to Islamic dress.

“I came to Bosnia because I had problems wearing a headscarf in my country,” she says. “Thank God, I found my feet quickly here.”

“The Bosnians were very surprised that someone would come here from Turkey to get an education,” she adds.

In Zehra’s Turkish homeland, students and teachers are forbidden to wear veils or headscarves at schools or universities.

Since 1997, under pressure from the secular-minded military, the government has enforced a ban on headscarves more rigorously than ever.

Rather than give in, however, Zehra decided to take a road less travelled and came to Bosnia and Herzegovina four years ago. “I was afraid of the unknown but, after a while, Bosnia did not feel like that,” she told Balkan Insight.

Indeed, she has since married a Bosnian and had a son, now several months old.

In Turkey, the campus is not the only no-go area for headscarved women. They may not work in the civil service or parliament, or practice law.

In 2005 Leyla Sahin put the issue before the European Court of Human Rights when her refusal to uncover her head forced her to study abroad. But in November 2005 the court upheld the Turkish government’s right to maintain the ban.

Some civil liberties groups, including Human Rights Watch, criticised the ruling. “The European court has failed thousands of women, therein unable to study at Turkish universities,” Holly Carter, director of Human Rights Watch in Europe and Central Asia, said.

The support of civil liberty groups was of no avail to Sahin, who still had to complete her medical studies in Vienna.

Unlike Turkey, Bosnian law does not forbid women from wearing headscarves in public places. Additionally, Sarajevo’s population is now largely Muslim and 400 years spent under Ottoman rule mean the local culture is much closer to that of Turkey than is the case in any other city in Europe.

The exact number of Turkish students in Sarajevo is unclear. “I don’t know how many Turks study at Sarajevo University but there are certainly more than when I arrived,” says Zehra.

The local students’ union estimates that about 200 of the 47,000 students in the city are from Turkey.

Most Bosnian students sympathise with their Turkish counterparts who have to study abroad because of the headscarf issue.

“I feel sorry for the fact that they have to leave their home to get an education for such mundane reasons,” says Dina, a local student.

Her classmate, Lejla, agrees. “I don’t mind them coming here. If it makes it easier for them to study here then they should be able to,” she told Balkan Insight.

The university authorities, however, downplay talk of students coming to study there for purely religious reasons.

“The doors of Sarajevo University are open to any person who would like to study here,” Zoran Seleskovic, secretary general of the university, told Balkan Insight.

“It’s the quality of the education rather than religious issues that prompts students to come here,” a psychology professor added. “There are students from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro and other corners of the world,” the same professor added.

Indeed, not all Turkish students in Sarajevo are especially religious. Hatidza does not wear a headscarf and her reasons for studying in Bosnia were more straightforward. “It’s a lot easier to join a faculty in Bosnia and Herzegovina than it is in Turkey,” she explained.

One reason for this is that competition to enroll in Turkish universities is so intense. Some estimates suggest only one student in ten who sits the university entrance exam in Turkey receives a place.

Hatidza came to Bosnia in 1999 and is a senior undergraduate at Sarajevo philosophical school’s Turkish language department.

She also works as a Turkish language teacher at the Fidan education centre, set up in 2003 to foster ties between Bosnia and Turkey. Hatidza does not intend to stay for ever. “I will go back home when I graduate,” she says.

One big disincentive for Turkish students coming to Bosnia is that their diplomas are invalid back in Turkey.

Degrees from Bosnian universities are not generally recognized outside of the country’s borders.

“Some opportunity will come my way when I return to Turkey. I am not afraid,” Hatidza says.

But Zehra doesn’t face that problem. She does not see her future in Turkey, where she encountered so many problems over her headscarf.

“If I am patient for a little bit longer, I might get Bosnian citizenship,” she says.


The story was first published by Balkan Insight.

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