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Backstory: A teen hijabi comes of age

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The dinner rush is on at the Silver City Galleria food court. Behind the counter of Brigham's Grille, 16-year-old Sarah Ismail takes rapid-fire orders. "Fries with that? For here or to go?"

Customers pay, reach for napkins and straws. Invariably their eyes settle on the head scarf Sarah wears beneath her Brigham's cap. If she notices the glances, she doesn't let on. Older couples, moms with toddlers, boys in baggy pants: She handles them all with the same easy competence. No one else in the neon-lit food court is wearing a hijab, the covering that conceals a Muslim woman's hair, ears, and neck.

It's a sharp contrast from the scene the night before at the mosque the Ismail family attends. There, it was hard to distinguish Sarah from a huddle of other teenage "hijabi," the term she and her friends use for themselves. The girls knelt to pray, and later sold brownies to raise money for the mosque. They also chatted and laughed and checked their cellphones for messages.

As a senior at Sharon High School, just south of Boston, Sarah is both different from her non-Muslim classmates and very much the same. To be sure, the hijab sets her apart, and she intends it to: "It's not just a piece of clothing. It's a lifestyle and a statement about who I am." Accordingly, she doesn't drink alcohol or smoke. She doesn't date, although boys don't go unnoticed (no names, no details). And five times a day she stops whatever she is doing to pray.

She's one of a growing number of Muslim American teens who wear hijabs - a choice that says much in the post-9/11 era of lingering suspicion toward Islam. Yet, many of Sarah's concerns are those of any teenager. Her senior year is full of familiar markers: SATs and college applications and a certain giddiness as the acceptances accumulate. She's still waiting to hear from her top choice, Boston University.


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