Silent Invisible Women

Imagine you live under constant scrutiny in society: you are an Australian woman, you come from a Lebanese-Muslim background, and your hijab identifies you wherever you go. How would you feel?

But what if you are also Deaf or Hard of Hearing? You don’t fit in the ‘Hearing’ world or the ‘Deaf’ world. You can’t quite fit into your own family or community, either, because of your hearing loss and in the wider world you face multiple communication and language barriers. Where do you fit then? How do you manage your multiple identities?

This is what I sought to find out.

My name is Ayah and I am an Australian Lebanese-Muslim woman with a hearing impairment. I was born and raised in Australia, and growing up I have faced many challenges due to both my ethnicity and my hearing loss. My hearing loss added another barrier I have had to face, not only in the wider Australian community but in the Lebanese-Muslim community as well. There is a lack of support, understanding and awareness about hearing loss, and other disabilities, in the Lebanese-Muslim community, and a lack of understanding and acceptance of Islam, and other ethnic minority backgrounds, in Australia, including in the Deaf community.

I want to close that gap.

The intersection of fitting into these different categories related to gender, culture, religion and disability meant I have faced a unique, complex and silent experience of trying to find out who I am and where I fit. 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, as a requirement of my Social Research and Policy Degree at the University of New South Wales, I devoted my honours research to this topic. My thesis explored the identities and lived experiences of Australian Lebanese-Muslim women with hearing impairment and investigated if they perceive their hearing loss as a ‘blessing’ or a ‘curse’. This thesis also aimed to raise awareness and break the strong cultural stigma associated with hearing loss in the Lebanese-Muslim community, as well as contribute to the wider discourse about diversity in the Deaf community.

As a researcher with these multiple identities myself, I used auto-ethnography to incorporate my own reflections and insights into the study. Auto-ethnography is a theoretical and methodological approach where ‘researchers use themselves as their own primary research subject’ (Butz & Besio 2009, p. 1665). Within this framework, I also used data from my Facebook page Silent Signs, where I share my experiences and observations in different community settings.

Additionally, I conducted semi-structured interviews with eight women living in Sydney, who also identified as Australian, Lebanese and Muslim women with a hearing impairment. Recruitment, preparing and conducting the interviews were a fundamental part of my research. Numerous challenges emerged due to language and communication barriers; reflecting the lived experiences of these women. For example, consent forms were offered in English and Arabic, a sign language interpreter was hired for three of the interviews and, due to my own hearing loss, assistance was needed with transcribing the interviews. I even made a video in Auslan (Australian sign language) to recruit participants and this proved to be a successful way of approaching and connecting with these women. You can view the video here.

Numerous themes and results emerged from my research and the key findings can be summarized as follows:

  • Most of the women regard Auslan as their primary language.
  • The majority of participants identified themselves by their hearing-loss identity first, followed by their identity as a ‘Muslim’ which was in the top two responses. Most of the women who chose the ‘Muslim’ identity stressed that religion allowed them to cope with all the different challenges they faced and to even perceive their hearing loss as a blessing from God. Many gave thanks and the Arabic phrase ‘Alhamdulillah’ (which translates as ‘All praise belongs to God’) was used numerous times by different women.
  • All women in the study faced different identity challenges such as conflicts between their ‘Muslim’, ‘Deaf’ and other identities. Navigating their ‘Lebanese’, ‘Australian’ and ‘Woman’ identities also included other identities such as being a ‘Mother’, ‘Wife’ or ‘Student’.
  • The women’s experiences and stories also showed that strong cultural stigma, barriers to communication, isolation in the family and a lack of accessibility in the community served to produce hearing loss as a ‘curse’.

Of course, my thesis has obvious limitations, including a very narrow sample. More expansive research will be needed not only to highlight diversity in deaf discourse but to also close the anecdotal gap between Islam and disability. I look forward to expanding on my honours thesis and conducting further research to meet these research desiderata.

At the moment, I am working at Advance Diversity Services on a research project about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and accessibility for people from different ethnic backgrounds. I also volunteer with MuslimCare Australia where I run a “Muslim Deaf Group” to raise awareness and provide support for other people like myself.

I recently collaborated with the Muslim Deaf Association Sydney on a Ramadan project where we encouraged people to sign “Ramadan Mubarak” in Auslan and send in their videos. You can see the final video here.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions at Silent Signs.

Ramadan Mubarak!

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ResearchBlogging.org References

Butz, D., & Besio, K. (2009). Autoethnography Geography Compass, 3 (5), 1660-1674 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00279.x

Wehbe, A., (2016), ‘Blessing or a Curse? Exploring the Identity and Lived Experiences of Australian, Lebanese, Muslim Women with a Hearing Impairment’, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

 

Author Ayah Wehbe

Ayah Wehbe has a Social Research and Policy (Hons) degree from UNSW and currently works for Advance Diversity Services. Her research interests are in disability and deaf studies as well as multiculturalism. She curates the Facebook page ‘Silent Signs’ at https://www.facebook.com/SilentSigns/ and has recently created a weblog at http://silentsigns.net/.

More posts by Ayah Wehbe
  • Tricia

    You have my admiration and respect, Ayah Wehbe! Your research and advocacy are proof that no disability is too great as to disable people from contributing value to our world.

    One curiosity I have about your research–Could there be varieties of Auslan based on the ethnic background of the language users? I wonder, for instance, if Australia-born Filipinos with hearing impairment sign in the exact same way that you do. What about Australia-born Chinese? It would be interesting to find this out. 🙂

    • Ayah

      Hi Tricia,

      Thank you for your kind words!

      Good question! I did not research about varieties of Auslan specifically, but based on what I know, there are some different varieties between different groups. Just like how people from different backgrounds sometimes add words from their language into their English, Auslan is similar. It was not even until a few years ago, when I was meeting a group of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Muslims and even sign language interpreters, where I learnt the (Auslan) signs for “Prophet”, “Allah” and other Arabic words and expressions like “Alhumdillah” (All praise be to God”.

      Another example I can give you, is that during our recent Ramadan Project, I actually signed ‘Ramadan’ wrong and a few people who are fluent in Auslan, from a Muslim background, actually complained. The sign was meant to start with my hand on my other cheek. I corrected the sign when other people sent in their videos, but I personally saw no difference. I am actually not fluent in Auslan, so I am not sure of who ‘originated’ the sign for Ramadan and how it became the ‘right’ one. But it is interesting how, in our case, incorporating Arabic words or even Islamic ones are being created and shared by Auslan users themselves.

      So, when it comes to incorporating different languages or words into Auslan, I am sure each group has it’s own varieties to reflect their cultural background. Very interesting topic indeed.

      It is also important to note that Australians may borrow certain words from another sign language from another country, but essentially our main language is Auslan, with different signs to reflect the cultural background. If you ask me if I can understand Lebanese sign language I probably wouldn’t!

      Ayah

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  • Sadami Konchi

    Dear Ayah Wehbe, What a wonderful post and your beautiful smile is shining! I hope your research will bloom out in the future. I have two Auslan speaking visual artists friends (*we met at “Arts Activated 2016” hosted by Accessible Arts NSW). A sketched guy had to learn Auslan, when he immigrated to Australia from Europe. I really look forward to your research. Yey, go, go, Ayah!! Best wishes, Sadami https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/18be78dd083f091e08a288b6881b0f4ac0655a61fb4d7fca42003613de6fdce1.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3d86a29a1ff189ca891b199346b5b27c663807cdc00727e6e04309472f183f6c.jpg

    • Ayah

      Dear Sadami,

      Thank you!

      The artwork are beautiful!!

  • ROSE GARRY

    Silent invisible women is a very interesting article that is encouraging too. Like many contexts, women share similar challenges. However, we are encouraged to use challenges for positive growth and outlook.
    This article resonates with me as similar experiences occur in my context. So many women remain silent in so many different situations. It is too much when women know what they wish to express freely is right yet they are constrained. Their rights become impermissible as per the social norms of the society. Their value as participants in a discourse is slightly valued and so what is not expressed remains a silent cry from within. Though women are seen physically, their unheard stories make them silent invisible women.

    • Ayah

      Thanks so much Rose. Yes women share similar experiences and we should use our challenges as fuel for a positive life.
      I love your last sentence, yes women may be seen but their unheard stories make them silent and invisible. We all should find a way to express ourselves and make ourselves heard. I hope you find a passion or outlet that lets you be you.

  • S. J. L.

    Ayah’s article does challenge me as an indomitable will overcoming the two huge huddles. Her experiences must have been great encouragement to the people who she interviewed because she could understand their situations and feelings. Plus, I believe Ayah will be able to help both the deaf and Lebanese immigrants since she has managed to get over physical and cultural difficulties together.

  • Ayah

    Thanks for sharing Rehan! It is always interesting to see other perspectives, including a male’s perspective. Yes sometimes our different languages, cultural backgrounds and things that identifies us like hijab and beards may make us feel inferior in front of the ‘Majority’, but sometimes it is better to be different and stand out from the majority. It can be challenging sometimes but we are blessed to have a unique and mixed identity which enables us to try interacting with different kinds of people, while discovering and being comfortable with who we are. And you speak about accents, as someone with hearing loss it’s difficult for me to distinguish accents but having an accent means your know another language ;).

  • Katherine Douglas

    This is a really interesting article. Ayah states that the ladies in this study identify themselves first as having hearing loss, then Muslim faith second.
    I have a Christian female friend I met at a previous church. She is Deaf, yet she believes that she is first a Christian, then hearing impaired. Her faith in God defines her first -which is an interesting difference! However, like the ladies in Ayah’s study, she believes her faith helps her through the huge challenges she faces, daily. I’ve had the privilege of being her friend for a few years now, and I believe her when she says that her hearing loss has been a “blessing” (sometimes), because it gives her a perspective on life that not a lot of others have. I think doing a similar study with other faiths would be interesting – I wonder if similar results would occur with other faiths, or if there would be remarkable differences and what they would be?

    • Hi Katherine,
      at a conference I recently attended (16th International Conference on Minority Languages) one of the keynote speakers, Dr Robert Adam, UCL, spoke about the religious divide in Australian sign languages: for a long time Auslan was a Protestant language while Catholics used Australian Irish Sign Language. Sadly, the latter is now severely endangered …
      Ingrid