Areas of Study

On Thursday, November 20, the normally quiet atrium of Hall Memorial Building was transformed into a classroom of cultural enlightenment. The rows of folding chairs slowly filled up and by 12:30 the space was filled with approximately 40 people for the panel discussion, ISLAM: A Deaf Muslim Woman’s Perspective.

Lindsay Dunn, a staff member in the Department of American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies, coordinated the event and opened by explaining that the panel discussion was part of the Deaf World, Global Lens series. The goal of this series is to better understand the deaf community from an international perspective and to examine where different identities intersect. Dunn then introduced Abbas Ali Behmanesh, an ASL/ESL Instructor in the English Language Institute, who moderated the event.

Seated on a platform at the front of the audience were four women, each wearing a hijab, the traditional headscarf of Muslim women. The panel included Andaleeb Elayan, a Palestinian who grew up in Virginia and is currently studying accounting; Hanan Aly from Egypt and a well-known leader within the deaf Islamic world of the Middle East and North Africa who is studying at the English Language Institute (ELI) and hopes to earn a graduate degree at Gallaudet; Fatima Al-Anazi, a Saudi Arabian who is also an ELI student and hopes to enter graduate school at Gallaudet in the fall of 2015; and Huda Abuahmad, an ELI student from Saudi Arabia.

All four panelists are women, deaf, and Muslim, and they were eager to share how these three major identities have shaped their lives. Though they all share these identities, they did not necessarily have similar experiences. Elayan, who grew up in the United States, said she does not feel as if being deaf or a woman poses as large of a barrier as being a Muslim. Referring to daily encounters, she explained that people often have trouble seeing beyond her Islamic religion. “They don’t always look at me as a human first,” she said. Contrastively Aly, reflecting on her life in Egypt, pointed out that while there is a profound gender inequality, it is less difficult to identify as a Muslim because the religion is prevalent. Abuahmad meanwhile reported that she has not faced significant discrimination or barriers due to any of the three major identities.

The women also shared with the audience what it means to wear a headscarf in today’s society. All four expressed that they were comfortable wearing the hijab and Aly stated that it gives her the opportunity to share the Islam religion. The panel explained that the hijab is a symbol of modesty and that it is only worn in public. They also emphasized that modest clothing notwithstanding, Muslim women grow up leading fairly typical lives; playing sports, swimming, horseback riding, and participating in other outdoor activities. Said Al-Anazi, “I don’t feel as if wearing the hijab has been a barrier in education or in life.”

Wishing to dispel other myths about Islam, Al-Anazi explained the basic tenets of the religion. While she stated that believing in God and the Prophet Mohammed is essential, she stressed that not everyone practices Islam in the same way and there is not a list of specific requirements in order for someone to identify themselves as a Muslim. Aly also clarified that Islam, like Christianity, encompasses many different countries and all their respective languages and cultures.

Moderator Behmanesh then asked what the women want the Gallaudet community to know about Islam, and the panelists had excellent advice for their fellow classmates. Al-Anazi implored the audience to avoid stereotypes: “Judge the person, not the religion. One person who makes a mistake doesn’t represent the entire religion.” Aly also emphasized the importance of focusing on the individual saying, “If people insult me because of my religion, it’s only because they’re ignorant about me as a person.” Reiterating what was perhaps the overriding theme, Elayan suggested, “Please keep an open mind and don’t be scared to ask questions; it’s better to ask than to assume.”

Dunn, the event coordinator, is passionate about recognizing the diverse cultures on campus and believes that globalization has brought the deaf world together like never before. He explained that the Department of ASL and Deaf Studies, to which he belongs, is distinctively qualified to scrutinize this cohesion and has an obligation to study the international deaf community from a broader, global lens. “We are, after all, the niche program that gives the university its unique identity,” he said. “It makes perfect sense that discourses that interrogate the deaf body should begin within this department.”

It is clear that Dunn believes in the importance of Gallaudet’s global reach. He remarked, “International students return to their countries liberated and show their peers the way to unshackle the chains of bondage.” He explained that these graduates, who he calls “light-bearers,” show their governments that citizens with disabilities are due the same privileges as everyone else and that refusing them these liberties only denies the country of productive citizens.

Concerning the American students at Gallaudet, Dunn stressed that they be mindful of the global deaf world in which we now live. “It is essential [they] recognize that there are other ways of being deaf…and that these other ways greatly contribute to the vibrant dynamism that defines the global deaf world,” he stated.

Events like this panel discussion aim to do just that by promoting a better understanding of the international deaf community, and in so doing make it a more connected, integrated, and harmonious place for all.

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