Young Muslim Americans Struggle with Identity Sisters Assia and Iman Boundaoui grew up outside Chicago, their lives straddling what it is to be Muslim and American. Born to Algerian parents, the young women reflect on how they are perceived by non-Muslims and their national pride.
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Young Muslim Americans Struggle with Identity

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Young Muslim Americans Struggle with Identity

Young Muslim Americans Struggle with Identity

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This week we're listening to the voices of Muslims in the United States, and today we step into the lives of two young Arab Americans.

On September 11th, SWAT teams showed up at their suburban mosque, there to protect them from angry protesters who were calling them terrorists. At the time they were young teenagers. Now they're young women navigating two cultures.

NPR guest correspondent Judy Woodruff has their story.

Unidentified Woman #1: Iman, come down!

JUDY WOODRUFF: Assia Boundaoui and her sister Iman are about to leave the house. But at the moment, they can't get out the door.

Unidentified Woman #1: What're you going to wear?

Unidentified Woman #2: Can you just find my blue scarf? It has a pin on it…

WOODRUFF: Assia wears jeans and a sweatshirt, but she can't find her favorite headscarf. When she and her sister go out in public, even if it's just to get the mail, they cover their hair.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay, I want the blue one because it's ironed and there's a pin on it. And the blue one looks better on me than the black one.

WOODRUFF: They're both college students. Assia is 20. Iman is 18.

Unidentified Woman #1: Are you looking over there?

WOODRUFF: Their parents grew up in Algeria, but the girls grew up outside Chicago in Bridgeview, Illinois, where they attended the Islamic school and the Sunni mosque around the corner.

They watched Nickelodeon and al-Jazeera, and got takeout from the KFC and the falafel place down the street.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's always like this every time we want to leave.

Unidentified Woman #2: You're making this so complicated. Ah! I found it! Pinless, but blue. Where do I have a pin? Ah…

WOODRUFF: I met Assia and Iman on a reporting project where I travel the country interviewing dozens of young Americans about their lives.

Unidentified Woman #1: Found one?

WOODRUFF: The day before I met them, an NPR producer joined them and recorded these scenes.

Unidentified Woman #1: And we're ready to go.

(Soundbite of car starting)

Ms. ASSIA BOUNDAOUI: This is Assia again, and we're driving past Bridgeview.

Ms. IMAN BOUNDAOUI: My name is Iman. Two blocks are completely Muslim and Arab-American in Bridgeview, and that's the block we live on. And so that was probably like the range of where we could play, because, like, everybody knew everybody. And when the mosque was built, the non Muslims were moving out and all the Muslims started moving in.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: There's a variety of people. The majority are Palestinian, but there are Syrians, Jordanians, Yemenis, and then there are a few north Africans. So let's go.

We're about to walk into one of our close family friend's homes, and we've grown up with them. We've known them forever. And we're coming here for brunch.

Unidentified Woman #3: Hello!

Unidentified Woman #4: Hello, hello.

WOODRUFF: Their friends are also from North Africa, the Rahima(ph) family from Libya.

Unidentified Woman #1: We're eating right now, and a typical Libyan breakfast, sort of. Tuna and olives and feta, tomatoes, and then…

WOODRUFF: The conversation suddenly swerves into politics.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Look, I went to this thing - I went to this divestment conference in D.C…

WOODRUFF: Twenty-year-old Assia Boundaoui has worked for an Islamic civil rights group and a Palestinian rights organization. She tells her friends that if they don't like the politics of a certain company, they should consider boycotting it.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: …socially, you should be conscious of what you buy.

Unidentified Woman #3: As the average consumer…

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Woman #3: …I am not cognizant of that type of stuff, because I don't sit there and try to figure out what every company is about.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: But I'm telling you right now.

Unidentified Woman #3: All I know is I need juice, I go buy it.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: (Unintelligible), I'm telling you just, you know, Tropicana is better than Minute Maid. So buy Tropicana.

Unidentified Woman #3: That's the problem!

Unidentified Woman #4: No, that's true. Like that's stuff, like, we would do. Like, when the whole, like, Jewel(ph) boycott was going on, we did that.

Unidentified Woman #3: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Right!

Unidentified Woman #3: Why did we boycott Jewel anyway?

Unidentified Woman #4: Because they said that…

Unidentified Woman #5: They said that they send funds to Israel to fund the arms and all that other stuff that they do (unintelligible).

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: See, just to say that you have a company in Israel or you send money to Israel, is not enough to boycott it. But to directly support the military…

Unidentified Woman #4: Right.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: …like that's, you know, that's just supporting the occupation, you know?

Unidentified Woman #4: No, right, (unintelligible). Like that's, that's what's unclear. Like there was a time when everybody went crazy…

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Right. Right. Made in Israel!

Unidentified Woman #4: Don't buy - yeah!

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Don't buy it!

Unidentified Woman #4: Don't buy, like, any of the stuff, which made it so unrealistic for us because, like, stop living, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Ah, it's the afternoon right now and we're hanging out.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: We're just listening to music, like we usually do.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: The music we listen to, we listen to a lot of new stuff, because a lot of my friends go to Jordan and Egypt often and they come back with, like, new CDs.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Arabic pop I think is different than American pop. The lyrics are never dirty. It's just, like, nonsensical sort of, like, habebee(ph) means my love in Arabic. So it's like, did you know, habebee, that you're my habebee? It's just ridiculous but, I mean, the beats are good.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. NANCY AJRAM (Singer): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: And we're listening to Nancy Ajram and she's from Lebanon. She's sort of like the Britney Spears of the Arab world.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AJRAM: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

WOODRUFF: Another scene from the Boundaoui's day now: a group of young friends at Assia's house talking about growing up Muslim in America. Nineteen-year-old Esra Rahima(ph) describes how she responds when people ask her where are you from.

Ms. ESRA RAHIMA (Friend of Boundaoui sisters): I just assume, like, when they say where am I from, I'm very open to be, like, oh, I'm Libyan. Like, oh, yeah, both my parents are Libyan. Because I know how people think. Like, they think, oh, what's your heritage, what's your nationality?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: But would they ask you that if you weren't wearing a scarf? Just cause you wear a scarf people think that you are an immigrant. Like, that just pisses me off. You know, 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. You know, they have to ask you where are you really from? No, no, where are you really from?

(Soundbite of unintelligible crosstalk)

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: When we went to 4th of July - 4th of July we go to this park where they do fireworks and there's entertainment and whatever. We go there usually, like, every year. And I felt like - we all felt completely normal, but then Assia kind of felt like don't you feel like people are staring at us. Like, this is like all-American, you know, holiday and here we are with are, like, scarves and do we feel out of place. And I'm, like, no. You know what I mean?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Well, you know what? In certain - this is Assia - in certain crowds I really do. Like, in that kind particular crowd, I feel like people are looking at us and, like, why are you here. But I don't feel like that very often at all.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: I think you give people less credit than they deserve because I always, maybe, felt like that and then when you go to Europe, you feel like Americans are so much nicer...

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: What?!

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: ...and Europe is so...

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: I feel the complete opposite way. I feel a lot more comfortable in Europe than I do in the U.S.

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: Europe, because there's diversity (unintelligible)...

WOODRUFF: And then these young women ask each other this: When it comes to your own identity, do you think of yourself first as Muslim or American?

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: Okay, in America, we would say we're Muslim first. Right? Because that's what makes us different I guess. So you identify with that one factor within you that stands out. But in another country, like in a Muslim country, and if someone asked us to identify ourselves, we would say we were American. It's what you don't take for granted, I guess, that identifies you in that location. You know what I mean?

Ms. I. BOUNDAOUI: This is Iman again. The most, the one moment I've most felt American was on my senior trip to Paris we went to a Muslim school and it only, like, holds about 120 kids and the reason they made it was because of the law that prohibited women from wearing the scarf in public buildings.

And so 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. 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 we 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.

WOODRUFF: Eighteen-year-old Iman Boundaoui and her older sister Assia. This month, Iman starts her freshman year at Northwestern University and Assia begins a college fellowship in Europe for an international human rights organization.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Woodruff.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow we pick up where we left off. Judy asks the Boundaoui sisters about what they don't like about wearing the headscarf.

Ms. A. BOUNDAOUI: People have these preconceived ideas of who you are and you have to, you know, 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.

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