The modesty issue is probably the single biggest obstacle Muslim women will encounter in the hospital.
Each time Yasmine, an American-born revert to Islam, remembers giving birth to her fourth child, she cringes and describes the experience as "pure torture"—not because of the pain of the labor and delivery, but because of how she was treated by the hospital staff. While she admits that most workers in the hospital were courteous and professional, she also describes other incidents that left her feeling victimized.
Yasmine did not enter the hospital intending to have problems with anyone. Like most women, she simply wanted to have her baby in the normal manner and go home. But one request from Yasmine (that no men be allowed to enter her room or examine her without her permission) triggered sensitivities among staff members who felt that she was asking too much.
Yasmine says that she has always been modest and that she also used to request female doctors before her reversion to Islam. "Unless there is a real emergency, why should I let a strange man touch me for any reason?" she asks pointedly.
Yasmine was promised by the head nurse that only women would be allowed to examine her and that her baby would also be delivered by a woman. But she had not settled into her room for more than five minutes when a man and a female nurse burst in unannounced. This was very embarrassing to Yasmine who was dressed in only a hospital gown. Shocked, she did what she could to cover herself while her husband exploded in anger. Moving everyone outside of the room, he demanded to know what had happened to the assurances of privacy for his wife.
The man, it turned out, was an intern who would not be "touching" Yasmine, just "observing" the female labor nurse at work. Both Yasmine and her husband rejected this because the issue was not only "touching" as far as they were concerned but also "looking."
It did not end there. The labor nurse was defensive about the situation and became tough with Yasmine, making several harsh comments to her whenever they were alone in the room together. She was also very harsh in her physical treatment of her during and after her labor. Sadly, Yasmine felt powerless to complain because this nurse was in charge of her care and had the ability to cause serious harm to her or her baby.
Yasmine's story serves to identify some common concerns of Muslims who seek medical treatment in the US, but if we are to gain from her misfortune, then it is necessary to develop the strategies, which will help other Muslim women avoid such predicaments.
The modesty issue is probably the single biggest obstacle Muslim women will encounter in the hospital. While Islam does not prevent Muslim women from receiving treatment from male doctors, it is not preferred if there is a qualified female available to perform the same job. Many Muslim women do not see male doctors unless there is a genuine emergency and also do not feel comfortable doing so while alone or uncovered more than necessary in order to receive treatment.
Most Muslim women giving birth for the first time will simply choose a female obstetrician or midwife to provide for their care and never give a second thought to the issue of privacy. But choosing a female doctor is really just the first step of many in working to secure a hospital stay during which privacy is not compromised.
It is important to realize that many doctors work in group practices, which may also include males. If your doctor is not able to make it to the birth of your baby, one of the other doctors will be called in to replace her. In the case of midwives, they are not able to perform emergency surgery and may also need the assistance of back-up doctors during other complicated medical procedures. While none of this can be prevented or even known before the time your baby is born, you can try to plan for such situations by looking for all-female practices or midwives who are affiliated with female back-up doctors. If this is not possible then at least let your doctor know ahead of time that you would prefer to have a female replacement rather than a male one: a practice that has a mixture of male and female doctors may be able to accommodate your request by keeping a female on-call during the week of your due date.
Developing a good relationship with your doctor or midwife is key in having a positive birth experience. The more you like and understand one another, the more smoothly things are likely to go in the hospital. It is essential that you do not wait until the day of your baby's birth to start discussing important issues having to do with your privacy but that you do so just as soon as you know you are pregnant and have your first pre-natal appointment.
Work over the course of your pregnancy to educate your doctor about the concerns of Muslim women in the hospital. This should be done in a polite manner without lecturing her. If she seems genuinely interested in what you have to say, asks questions and makes notes in your chart, this is a good sign that she is open to' working with a Muslim patient. Keep in mind that you may be the first Muslim woman to whom she has attended and that she will need reassurance from you that you will allow a male doctor to intervene in the event of an emergency in which there are no females available to do the same job. The more flexible you are, the more comfortable the doctor will feel working with you and your family.
Even if you discuss your need for privacy early on in your pregnancy, make sure to do so again towards the end of it. This will serve to refresh your doctor's memory as well as to give you a chance to discuss the logistics of how you will prevent men from entering your room unnecessarily during your baby's delivery. During a normal birth in which no intervention by back-up doctors is needed, you can expect that other males may enter the room in order to take your blood, check the baby and perform other jobs. A doctor who is responsive to your needs can inform the staff that only females should enter your room. It is also a good idea to place a sign on the door of your room so that no one wanders in by mistake. Finally, if a male must enter the room for any reason, you should be given time to wear Hijab before that happens.
In light of the difficulties Muslim women face when seeking medical care, it seems obvious that an official dialogue must take place between representatives of Muslim communities and the hospitals, which serve them. In places where this has already been done, Muslims have secured rights in many aspects of patient care, including the need for Halal food and the right to care for the bodies of deceased Muslims in the proper manner.