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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, 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Judy Woodruff