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Why You Should Learn About Ševala Zildžić, the First Muslim Woman to Become a Doctor in Yugoslavia

Why You Should Learn About Ševala Zildžić, the First Muslim Woman to Become a Doctor in Yugoslavia

Say, “Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (39:9) 

Back in 1903, Bosnia and Herzegovina was under Austro-Hungarian rule. This was the time of enlightenment for the people of my motherland. The first museums and theaters were opened in Sarajevo, and people had started to nurture their culture. The first magazines were established, but most importantly, education was not bound only to ​mektebi and ​ruždije, especially for young girls who could not attend ​medresa​, the religious school of the highest degree for Muslims who could become imams after graduating from it. Girls were allowed to attend ​medresa only in 1980, after more than four hundred years these schools being in existence. The Austro-Hungarian rule recognized the importance of Islam for people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they were well aware of the fact that they could not impose only their beliefs here. This was the time when Sarajevo was formally becoming a multicultural city. By formally, I mean by the formation of different religious communities, including the rising need for the Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is how the Austro-Hungarians respected the traditions, but still allowed people to adapt to new European lifestyles. 

The new century meant more new public secular schools in Sarajevo, just like in other parts of Austro-Hungary. However, this did not mean that girls gained instant access to education. Schools called ​gymnasiums were reserved for boys, while girls were required to attend only a primary school for girls. They had attended these schools to learn to read and write because most people had believed that that was the pinnacle of education they had needed as future wives and mothers. And that was it. That is where education for many young girls stopped. Not for the girl from our story, though. And this is why the story about Ševala needs to be heard, although not even many Bosnians know about her. 

As she grew up, she became more conscious that the society she had been growing up in was not friendly towards educated women.

Besides being an ode to the name of the month of Shawwal, Shawwal in Arabic means great, elevated​. Ševala lived up to her name. Ševala Zildžić was born in Sarajevo into a Muslim family of a craftsman. As she grew up, she became more conscious that the society she had been growing up in was not friendly towards educated women. But she persisted and graduated from the girl’s primary school in Sarajevo. But unlike many other young women of her generation, she had decided to go for more. She decided to go for what no parent would allow their daughter to do because of their safety; because of the parental fear and panic, because of standing out, because of raising her voice, raising the barrier and going for more. And she had gone for more. That is how she had decided she wanted to attend the First Male Gymnasium in Sarajevo. The gymnasium still exists to this day, but thankfully, girls are allowed to attend it today. And here’s a coincidence: I pass by this building daily on my way to school. I am trying to imagine myself in a world where girls are not allowed to be near this building, where the world and the society felt like girls were not worthy enough of being educated. Tradition then dictated different rules, far away from the views we hold today. Little did they know that one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. 

…one of the oldest universities in the world, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. 

Although the rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina had changed by the time Ševala was ready to attend the gymnasium (World War I ended; Bosnia and Herzegovina became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), girls were still not allowed to attend any school after receiving primary education. This is how she had found herself at the forefront of change because she had known she did not want to stop her education. She was driven by her passion to become a doctor one day. And this led to Ševala being in front of the First Male Gymnasium, surrounded by the boys’ noise and shouting. 

But she was not intimidated by being in a “man’s world”. It was a man’s world, anyway. And that is how she had decided to ask the then-grand mufti, Džemaludin Čaušević, for official approval to continue her education. Ševala was given written approval by a religious leader to attend high school — a male high school. As daunting as it may seem in today’s world, where we are still fighting for equality, the approval of the grand mufti spoke volumes then, and it still does. It still shows us how revolutionary the Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was, even in the time when revolution seemed far away, in a place far from where we can see. But the worst punishment came from those in the neighbourhood, such as the traders who had decided not to sell groceries to her mother because her daughter was attending a male school. The language of the neighbourhood, the ​mahala​, is what threw bricks at Ševala, both metaphorically and in real life, as her son described. Ševala’s father had to pick her up every day to save her. Boys from the schools threw stones at her, just because she was a girl. A Muslim girl. A future doctor. 

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The approval of the grand mufti spoke volumes then, and it still does. It still shows us how revolutionary the Islamic community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was.

Due to the fact that Sarajevo still did not have a university back in the 1920s, Ševala became a student of medicine in Zagreb, today’s Croatia. In 1931, she officially became the first female Muslim doctor in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. While at university, she met her husband Muhamed Iblizović, a student of philosophy who had decided to study medicine because of Ševala. The beauty of their story, two doctors from Bosnia and Herzegovina, was even captured in ​The New York Times​. Of course, her fight did not end by becoming a doctor. She began working at the faculty of medicine, but after getting an offer to become an assistant, she decided to go back to Sarajevo, where she ended her career as a specialist of gynecology and pediatrics in 1962. During World War II, when hospitals had not been fully functional, Ševala was helping people of occupied Sarajevo. 

Ševala passed away in 1978 at the age of 75, but the mark she left in the world of medicine in Bosnia and Herzegovina is permanent. She paved the way for a great number of doctors of medicine we have today, showcasing that a doctor should be a human, before anything else. She showed that nothing could stop her from becoming a doctor, even in a so-called “man’s world.” So why aren’t we taught about Ševala? When I had first discovered her, I was disappointed to see that it took me more than twelve years of education to learn about her. Ševala Zildžić-Iblizović devoted her whole career to helping women and children. She was a dreamer, aiming for the stars, unstoppable and persistent. She did not let the criticism of ​mahala stop her; she did not let criticism define what she should be remembered for. By accomplishing many “firsts,” she set an example, both as a woman and as a Muslim, to those who should know that Islam strives for knowledge, wisdom, and helping others. She is a role model for the unstoppable (Muslim) women of the future. 

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