Mehnaz Afridi was astonished to learn that half of this area’s Muslims are Bosnians. The Muslim scholar will be in the area March 31 to give the Lee Institute lecture on the issues faced by Muslim women. For many in St. Louis, one of the main issues is correcting misperceptions.
The great majority of Bosnians resettled here between 20 and 11 years ago to escape the former Yugoslavia’s devastating war of religious persecution in 1992-95. Members of the new generation, born in St. Louis, are now graduating from high school.
Estimates of the St. Louis Bosnian population range from 30,000 to 70,000, banker Anela Barbanell said. As president of the United Bosnian Association and treasurer of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, she has a wide reach in the community. Not all Bosnians are Muslim. However, the vast majority of those who fled and got U.S. State Department refugee status because of religious persecution were Muslim, Barbanell said. St. Louis has the largest Bosnian community outside Bosnia.
“I wish we had better count,” she said.
Bosnian Muslim women, like the majority of Muslim women in the area, do not cover their hair except inside mosques.
Wearing scarves has not been part of their Bosnian Muslim’s cultural tradition since the 1930s, said Akif Cogo, who founded the nonprofit, St. Louis Bosnians. In Bosnia, Orthodox and Catholic nuns were about the only women who daily covered their heads.
“We are more westernized, European, but our faith is Islam,” Barbanell said.
Barbanell, 34, has been in St. Louis for 20 years. She had an idyllic early childhood, free to play safely outdoors in her neighbored, taking buses to events, swimming on warm days in a nearby public pool. All changed when she was 11 and war severed ethnic and religious cooperation in the former Yugoslavia. Her Muslim family fled religious persecution in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina for a relative’s home in the only slightly safer Croatia. For the next two years she went to bed every night wearing shoes and layers of warm clothing. When sirens wailed warning of bombers flying, her family would hurry to a bunker at the end of their street. In 1994, her family came to St. Louis.
“In St. Louis, Bosnians blended in quickly, especially if we learned English,” she said.
She graduated from Soldan High School and Fontbonne University before becoming a banker.
At many Bosnian-St. Louis gatherings, special prayers are said for those who died in the 1992-95 war, she said. Many St. Louis Bosnians came here from eastern Bosnia in and near the site of the war’s horrific massacre at Srebrenica.
Some Bosnian women try to get a few hours off one or two Fridays each month for traditional Friday worship and to hear an imam preach at one of the three Bosnian mosques.
“I go to the mosque I belong to, but not every week,” Barbanell said. “I pray but not five times a day the way some Muslim do,”
Many St. Louis Bosnians find time to privately pray to God and prefer to have an imam officiate at their Muslim marriage service, Cogo, a young Bosnian leader, said. A Bosnian bride might cover her head at the wedding in a mosque but at the reception, and in her wedding photos, she’s apt to be bare-headed and bare-shouldered in a strapless, white American wedding gown, Cogo said. Western style was typical in the former Yugoslavia, too, he said. In contrast, most Somali women here were scarves or veils. Some partially cover their faces.