Young Muslim Americans Struggle with Identity

Assia and Iman Boundaoui

Assia Boundaoui, left, and her sister Iman grew up in a Chicago suburb with a large Muslim population. Photos by Arzoo Abbas (Assia), Amira Hassan (Iman) hide caption

itoggle caption Photos by Arzoo Abbas (Assia), Amira Hassan (Iman)

Part 2 of the Story

NPR Series

Generation Next

The 42 million 16- to 25-year-olds in the United States — roughly 14 percent of the population — will have a major impact on American society as they rise into adulthood. In a series of profiles on NPR's Morning Edition and PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff looks at what makes Generation Next different from its predecessors.

Sisters Assia and Iman Boundaoui grew up outside Chicago, their lives straddling what it is to be Muslim and American. Born to Algerian parents, they attended an Islamic school and a Sunni mosque around the corner from their home. They watched Nickelodeon and Al Jazeera. They got takeout food from Kentucky Fried Chicken and the falafel place down the street.

Assia, 20, and Iman, 18, reflect on what it means to dress differently because of their religion, and how they are perceived by non-Muslims.

"I'm proud to be Algerian, but it makes me mad when people think just because you have a scarf on, you can't be American," says Assia, who is 20. "You know, they have to ask you, 'Where are you really from? No, no where are you really from?'"

All of which might prompt a question: When it comes to their own identity, do you they think of themselves first as Muslim, or American?

"In America, we would say we're Muslim first, because that's what makes us different, I guess," Assia says. "So you identify with that one factor within you that stands out. But in another country, like in a Muslim country, and someone asks us to identify ourselves, we would say we're American."

Iman says she felt most American during a trip to Paris she took as a high school senior. Her group visited a Muslim school that was opened in response to a law banning religious headwear in public schools.

"We were talking to the girls and they were crying and telling us that before the school was made, the girls there had to make the choice of not going to school or attending school without the scarf," Iman says. "It was probably the hardest decision they've ever had to make. And me and my friends were looking at them and at that moment were like, 'Thank God we live in America, that I can walk down the street with my scarf on without having to decide to take it off because I have to go to school.'"

This month, Iman starts her freshman year at Northwestern University; Assia begins a college fellowship in Europe for an international human-rights organization.

Assia's Decision

In an e-mail to NPR, Assia Boundaoui explains her decision to stop wearing a hijab, or headscarf, at least for now.

It's been a few months since we met, much has changed and much has stayed the same... here's a glimpse into life currently as I know it...

Since we last spoke in June, I've gone through with my decision to no longer wear hijab. The decision has been a year in the making, and it's been quite a deliberate and introspective personal journey. Hijab is and will always remain an internal spiritual force within me; it goes to say that hijab isn't a mere external covering. In my mind hijab is modesty manifested in every aspect of my life, in my actions, words, and choices. So although I have chosen not to embody hijab physically, it remains an empowering and integral force in my life.

My decision has been completely supported by my family as they similarly view religion as a journey rather then a destination, and fully support me in the decisions and choices I make throughout my personal journey. As for my acquaintances and community, although they may not entirely understand my choices (and to be frank aren't necessarily expected to, seeing as my personal choices are precisely that... personal), I believe that their respect for me as an individual extends to the personal decisions I make in my life. My close friends have been incredibly supportive and sensitive throughout this reflective passage in my life — their love, guidance, and counsel has been invaluable in making the turning points in my life less daunting.

Hijab aside, this is also a very transitional and exciting period in my life in that I've decided to delay my graduation for a year, and take a year off to travel abroad. I've accepted a fellowship with an international human rights organization in Sicily... [I] am incredibly anxious and excited to begin my incredible expedition. Traveling overseas has always accorded me a unique perspective on life, politics, religion, etc. and I think that a year abroad will work to help me develop a stimulating and prolific state of mind.

So that's where I am right now. Life is good, lots of changes, all quite intriguing. I read something this summer that really stuck with me. In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam Tariq Ramadan writes, "In the natural order... human beings express needs according to the measure of their qualities and nature. With regard to the latter, the most natural of human quests is, when all is said and done, to know the source of the power and energy that gave life to the world — in fact, it is the search of the divine ." I suppose that's how I view my life at the present, a quest for knowledge, sincerity, truth, myself... and when it comes down to it, in fact, a quest for "the divine."



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