Theatre hijab has no place in NHS hospitals

Recently, I went to a large NHS teaching hospital in London for a blood test. A young couple was behind me in the queue. He was wearing a suit. She was completely covered. When I was finished and it was their turn, he started getting agitated and spoke loudly at the young MAN who was due to take blood from his wife. The husband of the woman in hijab would not let a male doctor take blood. “I need a woman to do this” he demanded angrily.

When the male nurse explained that there was no one else to take blood, the husband marched his wife away. There would be no blood test for her that day.

It turned out that the morality council in Saudi Arabia had recently announced that no Muslim woman could go to a hospital without a male relative and woman had to be seen by female doctors. These doctrines are increasingly be followed to the letter by so-called devout Muslims here too. We are seeing the rise of Wahhabism, a 19th century Saudi Arabian invention, throughout UK society and now in our state hospitals.  Liberal muslims like myself are furious and helpless to stop this spread.

Doctors and nurses in NHS hospitals are increasingly needing to confront the issue of so-called Islamic modesty code for women head on, either because patients demand it, or their own co-workers make it an issue. I find that white liberal apologists are becoming complicit in the slow take over of a fascist element with Islam, that seeks to impose its views on the rest of us.

There is no NHS-wide ruling on Islamic dress in hospital wards and operating theatres. At the moment, it is up to individual trusts to decide how they want to negotiate the matter, which just causes confusion in my opinion.

Recently, a NHS consultant anaesthetist was suspended for confronting a Muslim surgeon who refused to remove her hijab for an operation. The Trust reinstated him when a hospital investigation found he had simply being enforcing the Trust’s own strict codes to minimise infection. It said that religious headscarves are excluded in areas such as the theatre, where they could present a health and cross-infection hazard.

In Cairo in Egypt, the President of Cairo University has expanded his ban on the niqab face covering to all nurses, staff members of the faculty of medicine and female staff in the university’s teaching hospitals, citing patient rights to know who is treating them.

I’m not in favour of a hijab ban but rather a NHS-wide dress code which applies to everyone whatever background or religion they come from.

In the medical setting, it is true that there should be no compromise because of health and safety hazards. Yes, it is important that a patient can see who the face of the person who is treating them. However, my reason for instituting a dress code would not depend on these arguments, which by definition, accedes some room for the idea that religious sentiment should be given any credence in the medical world. Instead, I say that state run institutions including hospitals in a liberal society should be free from doctrine imposed by one section of society, not matter how intimidating and vocal they are. We don’t have to give reasons.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown came to this country in 1972 from Uganda. She completed her M.Phil. in literature at Oxford in 1975. She is a journalist who has written for The Guardian, Observer, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Evening Standard, The Mail and other newspapers and is now a regular columnist on The Independent and London’s Evening Standard.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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