My new working paper about Deaf Uzbek Jehovah’s Witnesses - Dilmurad Yusupov
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My new working paper about Deaf Uzbek Jehovah’s Witnesses

Photo: Deaf Muslim women at a local mosque in Tashkent greeting each other

This working paper resulted from my doctoral research fieldwork conducted in Tashkent in 2018-2019. It now seems to me that I would never think about the relationship between disability and religious inequality if I did not participate in the project being implemented by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (MBU) since early 2018. The MBU organised weekly religious meetings with blind and deaf people in Tashkent. I became part of this Muslim community first as an observer and then as a regular participant who would like to learn more about how persons with disabilities interpret disability through the lens of Islam.

One of the fascinating findings of my ethnographic fieldwork with persons with hearing impairments was that several members of the local deaf Uzbek community converted to Christianity and its unique denomination – Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). In the context of the ‘Uzbek Muslim’ ethnoreligious identification promoted both by the society and dominant Islamic religious institutions, the conversion of deaf Uzbek groups to another religion resulted in marginalisation and exclusion of religious deaf minorities. This study explores how intersecting identities based on disability, ethnicity, and religion impact the wellbeing of deaf Uzbek Jehovah’s Witnesses in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

Being deaf/hard of hearing in Uzbekistan is already a serious challenge due to pervasive discrimination based on disability. Deaf people face numerous attitudinal barriers and a lack of reasonable accommodation (e.g. limited sign language interpretation services, absence of subtitle on the national TV channels, the unclear legal status of the Uzbek Sign Language (USL)) to access quality education and employment on an equal basis. The findings show that belonging to a religious minority in Uzbekistan may result in further marginalisation and social exclusion, affecting the fragile solidarity within the deaf community by leading to intrahousehold and intracommunity conflicts and tensions based on religious identity.

The analysis of collected ethnographic data and semi-structured interviews with deaf people, Islamic religious figures, and state officials provides the case of how a reaction of a majority religious group to the freedom of religious belief (FoRB) contributes to the marginalisation and exclusion of religious deaf minorities who were converted from Islam to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The insensitivity of the dominant Muslim communities to the FoRB of deaf Uzbek Christian converts excluded them from their project activities and allocation of resources provided by the newly established Islamic Endowment Public charity foundation ‘Vaqf’.

On the other hand, as deaf and hard of hearing people became ‘a field of contestation between the dominant Muslim religious group and the minority group JW’ the competition for the souls of persons with hearing impairments induced the first to become more accessible following the example of the JW which provided sign language interpretation and other kinds of support during its sermons. However, there is still a great need for qualified sign language interpreters at mosques of Uzbekistan.

You can open access the working paper here:

Suggested citation:

Yusupov, D. (2021) Deaf Uzbek Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Case of Intersection of Disability, Ethnic and Religious Inequalities in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan, CREID Working Paper 8, Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/CREID.2021.008

On 23 June 2021, we held an online discussion on Redressing religious inequality for people with disability organised by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) at the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Sussex co-chaired by Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Chair of the APPG for Disability and Jim Shannon MP, Chair of the APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Watch the recording below:

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