Unveiling Hostility Towards Veiled Women
Several weeks ago, the story of Dr. Wolverson surfaced in the media and quickly gained traction on social media including doctor groups and pages. It had all the buzz words needed to make a story go ‘viral’ ; a white male doctor ( a noble profession of healing pain and saving lives, a person who holds privilege, a person who looks and sounds like 81.9% of the population ) a niqabi woman ( a vilified oppressed minority to some, an alien group to some, a detested group that does not belong in ‘Europe/Britain/The West’ to some, and a dangerous sign of creeping ‘shariah’ to some others) and the GMC ( a body seen by the public as protector of the their rights and a very much criticised regulator by the profession it regulates).
These players are guaranteed to evoke a strong emotional reaction in very different ways; the general public perhaps sympathetic to the doctor, they believe, about to lose his career for asking the child’s mother to remove her face veil simply so he could help her ill child, the doctors sympathetic-sometimes tribalistically- to a colleague they believe about to face the life-scarring horror of a GMC investigation for fulfilling his duty when he attempted to obtain an accurate history from the mother of the ill child, and the Muslims and non- Muslims sympathetic to a woman who they believed was subjected to a rude, racist, Islamophobic treatment by a white, male, possibly racist, doctor.
Of course, no one had enough detail to verify any of these claims, but people believed and defended their views, regardless. What transpired on certain threads on doctors’ groups saddened and disheartened me that I felt compelled to write a lengthy post in response. It is only natural that our first reactions as humans are possibly biased, they follow our loyalties, are our loyalties with the doctor because we too are doctors who, despite our good will and intention, maybe subjected to similar one day or are they with the oppressed niqab wearing minority woman whom we feel we identify with because we too belong to an oppressed minority or another. It was very interesting to see where people felt their loyalties were, the doctors, the ethnic minority doctors, the European doctors, the ‘French niqab-ban’- supporting doctors, the practicing Muslim doctors, the non-practicing Muslim doctors, the doctors with Muslim sounding names but who don’t identify as Muslim, the militant atheist doctors, the liberal doctors , the conservative doctors…
But bias should not be allowed to last beyond our first reactions, those internal emotions should soon be replaced with a rational reflection before we come to declare our final judgements…this did not seem to be the case.
The flurry of comments on Dr. Wolverson’s article’s posts sent my phone into a notification frenzy that carried on for days. Many comments were balanced and reasonable but too many were sharply divided and quite concerning, the tribalism in some comments resolute about the doctor’s innocence, the rush to label others as racists and islamophobes, sometimes unjustifiably, but most concerning to me was what transpired of my fellow doctors attitudes towards Muslim women and towards even any suggestions by others that there may be an Islamophobic sentiment
The problematic comments revolved around the following narratives:
“A woman who wears a niqab must be oppressed “
*Her husband made the complaint so he must be controlling and coercive “
*How could the doctor identify a patient with niqab”
*The niqab is not Islamic and it is not there in scripture”
“We support Europe on the niqab ban”
Most of these are problematic in their own right, because, they feed into existing narratives of discrimination against Muslim women, however, they pose even more dangerous issues when they reflect doctors’ sentiments about patients. Of course, it is well within any doctors’ rights to hold whatever views they wish about niqab, Muslim women, Islam, or any set of beliefs for that matter. An article about an issue stemming from a doctor’s request to a patient, or in this case the mother of a child patient, to remove her niqab should trigger a debate about the etiquettes of asking patients to remove an item of religious clothing and how it can potentially impact the consultation, which it rightly did, but, when it triggers angry debates about whether women have the right to wear it, how we can demand they remove it, and whether we should follow ‘Europe’s’ suit and ban it, then ,this may imply that this about more than just how we optimise our communication with our Muslim niqab-clad women patients. The latter are perfectly legitimate debates, that we should be having but my contention here is twofold; firstly, having conversations about banning niqab under a post assuming a doctor is at risk of losing his career because he asked a patient to remove her niqab feels at best irrelevant and at worst vengeful against all niqab wearing women for putting a doctor through this grief, secondly, the language similar to our prime minister hopeful, Boris Johnson’s language in the infamous article comparing women to gangsters and letter boxes, is dehumanising and demonising.
Muslim women are one of the most targeted groups in Islamophobic attacks, according to Tell MAMA’s 2018 interim report, Gendered Anti-Muslim Hatred and Islamophobia:
“…at a street level women remain the number one victim of anti-Muslim hatred with 58%,(n=233) of victims being female, re-affirming previous findings over the years, that anti- Muslim hate or Islamophobia at a street level is also male on female abuse in addition to anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry.”1
This goes up to 59%- 90% in other European countries according to the report Forgotten Women: the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women, a study done across eight countries by the European Network Against Racism.2
To then see doctors, one of the most informed and educated sections of society, and holders of power in consulting rooms, expressing such hostile sentiments towards one of the most marginalised groups in society is deeply concerning and reason for worry.
I'm writing this as a hijab-wearing Muslim doctor, as someone who has been the victim of islamophobia in the NHS, as an activist against religious discrimination, and as Equality and Diversity Lead of the Muslim Doctors Association.
My involvement in the struggle against religious discrimination came as a direct result of the injustice Hadiza Bawa-Garba suffered which many argue was a manifestation of the triple penalty for being a black, visibly-Muslim, woman.
I acknowledge that niqab may impact rapport between the doctor and the patient in the same way that perhaps large shades or pulled up hoodies would, and, I acknowledge that it may make us doctors more uncomfortable to ask patients to remove an article of religious clothing than it would shades or a hoodie, and much more so perhaps for male doctors and for non-Muslim doctors. But the only way forward is having mature, respectful, nuanced, conversations about this involving the women who wear it, not excluding them, and working on policies that enhance the quality of patient/doctor relationships whilst accommodating patient’s beliefs as much as possible.
Written By Batool Abdulkareem
GP and Equality and Diversity Lead at Muslim Doctors Association