The Inner Journey of Young Muslims in America

Part 1 of the Story

Two young women are discovering what it means to be Muslim in America. Assia and Iman Boundaoui talk about how they reconcile living between two worlds, and where their Muslim and American identities come together.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

And in the final part of our series on American Muslims, this morning we continue our visit with Assia and Iman Boundaoui. They're taking us on a tour of the Chicago suburb where they grew up.

Ms. ASSIA BOUNDAOUI: We're in Bridgeview right now in this plaza on 87th Street, which is predominantly Arab American.

Ms. IMAN BOUNDAOUI: And right now we're at Adamade(ph) Fashion Store, which sells Muslim attire. It sells scarves, the long cloaks that Muslim women wear, and different things.

MONTAGNE: The Boundaoui sisters are college students. Their family is from Algeria and lives a few blocks away from this strip mall, where recently Assia and Iman went shopping for a headscarf.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Assia can't find her brown one anywhere, and she keeps trying to take mine. So we're just going to buy a brown one for her.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: I'm looking for like an (unintelligible) plain brown (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman (Store Employee): (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: (Speaking foreign language) Like brown (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: We wanted to hear more about what the headscarf means to these young women and why it is such a powerful symbol for those who wear it and for those who don't.

Here with our interview of the Boundaoui sisters is guest correspondent Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As I sat down to talk with them in the family living room, I realized this was an opportunity to pose some basic questions that strangers, non Muslims, are curious about but rarely have the chance to ask.

How many scarves do you have?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Oh my God! We have like a hundred!

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: But it's like asking, how many blouses do you have? You know what I mean?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: It's like asking how many socks.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: No, it's like how many blouses do you have?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: No! Blouses, people have like 25 maximum.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Or shirts.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: We have like 110 scarves.

WOODRUFF: Is there one color you're supposed to wear on certain occasions?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: No.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: No. That's so funny, because people always ask that. Like does black mean you're married and blue because you're single…

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah. (Unintelligible)

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: …and, no. I mean it's like…

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: …why are you wearing a green shirt?

WOODRUFF: Can you look at a women who's a Muslim and tell where she's from by the way she ties her scarf?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Maybe not in the U.S. Because in the U.S., I mean, people copy a lot of different trends I guess. But like if you saw - if I saw someone in the airport, yeah, maybe. Yeah, I can be like, okay, she's from the Gulf, and, you know, she's Palestinian.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: It's funny. When we go to Algeria, that's also something that's very distinct.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: They'll know we are not from Algeria because of the way we do our scarf.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: It's a misconception, but Islam is very open to interpretation. So someone will say, well, just dressing modestly is enough. I don't need to cover my hair. And someone else will be like, well, I'm just covering my hair, but I can show my neck. So it's also, you know, a form of modesty. You're sort of telling people, look at me for who I am and for what I think and for my personality, and not for how I'm dressed. And that's sort of what the hijab says to people.

WOODRUFF: Women may wear the hijab so people don't judge them by their appearance, but by wearing it some people do judge them precisely by their appearance.

Inevitably, the scarf advertises that they're Muslim. The Boundaoui sisters say after 9/11 a few women in their neighborhood removed their headscarves out of fear. Others who hadn't worn them before decided to put them on out of pride.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: That's a question everyone asks you. Is life different after 9/11? But I think, in my mind, what's changed is when people maybe didn't see me before, they see me now very clearly. Now that they see me, they sort of have to decide how they feel about me, you know?

WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that? What do they say when they see you out in public? What do they see?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Sometimes it's hostile, and sometimes they're curious.

WOODRUFF: Iman, what do you think?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Well, other people, I felt like they saw somebody who was oppressed. And some people would just say, you know, you're in America now. You can take it off. You don't have to be wearing it.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah. No offense, but why do you wear a scarf? I think the pervasive misconception is that Muslim women are held down by hijab; it's a tool that men use to oppress them. But that's such an alien idea to us, because it's really such a personal choice.

You know, the United States is this free country, and people choose - women that choose to wear scarves in America are especially conscious of their freedom. So a Muslim woman's choice to wear it in America is especially poignant, I guess.

WOODRUFF: You're saying it's a choice.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Right.

WOODRUFF: You've grown up in a Muslim family where you were expected as young women to wear it.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Mm-hmm. Right.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Everyone expects it, but there was no forceful action. I thank God my mom was never that type to say, you know, it's time now; you have to put it on. My mom left it up to us.

WOODRUFF: How old were you when you started wearing it?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: I was 15.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: But my mom was from a different family. Like her sisters don't wear it and she wore it. And she wore it at a much later age. So, you know, she came to that decision completely individually.

WOODRUFF: Iman, when you make the decision to wear it, is that a decision you make for the rest of your life? I mean is this something you - a decision you revisit?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Hopefully I'll stick with this for life, but I can't look down the line and say I'm going to be wearing it forever because I don't know. In Islam, intention and action go hand in hand. If you put on the scarf and you're making a blind decision, you have no true intention behind it, then you're missing a huge aspect of what the scarf really means. So there's going to be a time in your life where you're going to double back and say, why did I put it on?

WOODRUFF: How much do you discuss the hijab either in your family or with your friends?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: We talk about it a lot. You know, you reach a certain age where you start deciding for yourself or you revisit everything. You go back to the beginning. You question why you do anything and everything.

WOODRUFF: Are you thinking about not wearing it?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: I don't know if I want to answer that. Okay, let me think. Well, personally, I've struggled with it. You want to do things for your own conviction and not because, you know, someone told you to do them or because you think you should do it.

WOODRUFF: You know, you are being asked because of your religion to grapple with and confront some very difficult decisions at a younger age that so - in a way, so many other people your age don't have to think about.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: I think it makes us stronger. It's hard in the beginning, because we feel that we have to prove ourselves I guess. Like over the past year I was working at a law firm. I was there for a year and I was the only Muslim and I was wearing a scarf, you know. And I felt like, wow, the pressure is on. All these people have these preconceived ideas of who you are, and you have to show them otherwise that, you know, I'm more than my scarf. I am a political science major. I am interested in this. I do that. You know, I am more than a scarf. We've always been, like...

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: (Unintelligible).

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: She said it's the hijab tax.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: We can probably safely call it the hijab tax because before we go out anywhere, like, whatever, just going to the store, our mom's always telling us, you're representing, you're representing. You're wearing the scarf. Everybody looks to you.

And so we always feel taxed for wearing the hijab. Being extra proper because when we go out we feel like people will look at our hijab before they look at the fact that we're a teenager. So if we're extra loud in the restaurant, we'll always tell each other, guys be quiet; people are going to look at us, you know.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Yeah, it's unfortunate because, you know, one person doesn't represent an entire faith. That's the main point, I guess. In everything that's going on, you know, you see a Muslim does something and it is Islam - it's translated as Islam. And that's a misconception.

WOODRUFF: Twenty-year-old Assia Boundaoui and her 18-year-old sister Iman. Assia talked about struggling with wearing the hijab, and several weeks after this interview she told us she's decided, at least for now, to stop wearing it.

In an e-mail to us she writes: Hijab will always be a spiritual force within me. It isn't a mere external covering; it is modesty manifested in every aspect of my life, in my actions, words and choices. I've chosen not to embody hijab physically, but it remains an integral force in my life. My decision has been completely supported by my family.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Woodruff.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To read Assia's entire e-mail and hear more of this conversation, go to npr.org. Also be listening over the next few months as Judy Woodruff brings us more profiles of young people across the country. It's part of a multimedia project called Generation Next. There's more about that on our Web site, too.

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