It was the first day of year 7. I was at the orientation assembly and was looking for the hearing support unit. I saw a few teachers signing and went up to introduce myself. “Hi! I’m Ayah!” I told them. “Oh, you’re Ayah! We couldn’t see your hearing aids because of your hijab!”
They were expecting me but did not recognise me or my ‘deaf” identity.
They first saw me as a Muslim and only that.
Fast forward a few years later. I am sitting at the mosque for Friday Prayers. The women sit upstairs in a private room, with only a TV screen showing the religious sheikh (leader) speaking. I turn to the Muslim woman next to me and ask, “is it time for prayers yet”?
With a confused expression she asks, “What, you don’t understand Arabic?”
Not all Muslims know Arabic. But since I am Lebanese, I should know Arabic… however, that wasn’t the case here. “I’m Hearing Impaired!” I tell her in an annoyed tone. Her expression changes and she gives me a pitiful hug.
She only saw me as a Muslim and only that.
That was my experience of growing up as an Australian Muslim woman with a hearing loss.
I was born and raised in Australia, and come from a Lebanese-Muslim background. I faced many challenges due to both my ethnicity and my hearing loss. As Foster & Kinuthia (2003) termed it, I am a ‘minority within a minority’ where people experience challenges and barriers with both their hearing loss and cultural background.
It wasn’t until after high school and starting university when I really struggled with my multiple identities. My journey of self- discovery and passion to understand the world around me led me to pursue a degree and career as a Social Researcher.
Last year, I completed my honours thesis at the University of New South Wales where I researched about the identities and lived experiences of women with hearing impairment from an Australian, Lebanese-Muslim background. My thesis aimed to raise awareness and accessibility for Muslims with hearing loss, as well as contribute to the wider community about diversity in deaf discourse.
Based on my research and personal experiences, I made a lot of observations;
On one hand, there is a lack of understanding and acceptance of the religion of Islam and other ethnic backgrounds in Australia, including in the Deaf community. Once I attended the Deaf Festival in Sydney and I was approached by different Deaf and Hard of hearing people who asked me questions such as “why do you wear that on your head” and “what do you eat?”.
I was happy to answer questions but it made me realise that awareness is needed in the Deaf community about the Muslim faith. These days, Islamophobia and negative stereotyping about Muslims are increasing and a lot of misunderstanding exists in the Deaf community; making things difficult for other people like myself to identify as both a ‘Muslim’ and ‘Deaf/ hard of hearing’.
On the other hand, there is a lack of support and understanding about hearing loss, and other disabilities, in the Muslim community in Sydney. Compared to other countries, we lack culturally- competence services and awareness, making it difficult for Muslims with hearing loss to participate in community and religious events. Sometimes a sign language interpreter is not provided or women would have to sit in another room in the Mosque, so accessing and learning about our religion was difficult. I had to learn about religion myself, through reading and searching the web, but it was not the same feeling when you are surrounded by people who follow the same faith as you or simply participating and feeling included in your community.
A few years ago, I almost gave up on my religion because of my hearing loss. I thought I would go to just one more event and if I did not understand anything, I would not come to any again. I went to a religious lecture where I met a sheihk (religious scholar) and for the first time I could understand him! He was very expressive and easy to understand without an interpreter! I decided to send him an email and explain my situation and he told me something interesting. He said I am a “true believer” because I did not give up and every year he travels overseas to give lectures, but something made him stay in Sydney that year, and now he knows that reason was me!
I was so touched and felt like it was a divine sign not to give up on my faith.
More importantly, I decided it was up to me to speak up and make changes in my community. Not only for myself, but for other Deaf and hard of hearing Muslims who do not have a safe space to connect and meet others like themselves and often feel isolated from both their deafness and ethnicity.
Many Deaf and hard of hearing people I’ve met do not even know or understand the 5 Pillars of Islam, the fundamental elements of being a Muslim, which are:
- Declaration of Faith (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his Messenger”)
- Praying 5 times a day
- Fasting in the month of Ramadan
- Making Pilgrimage to Hajj (The house of God)
- Giving Charity to the less fortunate.
They want to learn more about their religion or at least understand why we do certain things. But like everything else, they faced barriers due to their hearing loss.
So, I realised that awareness is needed on both sides. I realised I had to do something to close to close the gap between Islam and Deafness. Or at least, ethnicity and Deafness.
Inspired by my good friend Sherrie, I created a Facebook page called Silent Signs where I shared my experiences to raise awareness. Now I have a webpage (Thanks to Houssam Bizri) where I share blogs about my personal experiences, my cochlear implant journey, my research journey and events in the community. Feel free to check it out: Silent Signs
I also volunteer with different organisations such as MuslimCare Australia and Muslim Deaf Association Sydney (MDAS) to create accessibility and to raise awareness about hearing loss in the Muslim community. A recent example is a project I collaborated with MDAS for Ramadan, where we encouraged different people (Muslims and non-Muslim; d/Deaf and hearing) to sign “Ramadan Mubarak” in Auslan.
Thank you to Sherrie for giving me this opportunity to raise awareness and share the things I am involved in. We still have a long way to create accessibility and awareness, and I hope by sharing my personal experiences, anything can happen.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions!
Foster, S & Kinuthia, W, (2003) ‘Deaf Persons of Asian American, Hispanic American, And African American Backgrounds: A Study Of Intraindividual Diversity And Identity’, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, vol.8, no.3, pp.271–290.