Pregnant Muslim Women Who Wear Hijab Feel Ignored And Stereotyped By Their Doctors

Supermajority Education Fund

December 16, 2019

Healthcare providers’ lack of cultural understanding often leads their pregnant, Muslim patients to feel discriminated against or ignored, a new story in VICE reveals.

Women who choose to wear the hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering, told journalist Tasmiha Khan that they felt as if doctors were stereotyping them. They reported doctors doing things like assuming they did not know English, ignoring them in favor of their male partners, and treating them as if they were exaggerating or making up their symptoms. So Khan decided to investigate further.

“She made me feel so bad about myself,” a Bangladeshi immigrant who wears hijab told VICE about her OB/GYN. “I wish I wasn’t pregnant; this is so difficult.”

Another patient said she was denied the right to hold her baby after giving birth, despite her vocal objections. A third expectant parent felt she was given incorrect medical advice and ignored when she detailed her symptoms.

As Khan notes, part of the reason pregnancy discrimination against hijabi women is so difficult to address is because studies on Muslim women’s experiences with healthcare are relatively rare. Additionally, because health statistics are collected based on race-based categories rather than on faith, Muslim patients who are studied are categorized in several different racial groups, including African American, Black, Middle Eastern, and South Asian, among others.

Muslim American advocates say the only way to address the disparities in treatment that hijabi women face is by working to educate the medical community about cultural needs like providing modest hospital gowns if necessary and accommodating patients who request a female physician. But the best way to understand those needs is by openly communicating with patients.

“Muslim women are not all cut from the same cloth and will have different levels of comfort in a healthcare setting,” Ayan Ajeen, the National Communications Coordinator for the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Supermajority News. “Rather than laying down a blanket rule for how hijabi women will be more comfortable bringing up their concerns with medical professionals, the professionals should make it a habit to open the floor for the women and give them a chance to explain what they are comfortable with.”

When that communication and respect are not present, Muslim women patients postpone seeking care. A 2016 study found that patients who are concerned about not being able to access female physicians or have concerns about preserving modesty during their examination are less likely to go to the doctor.

Ajeen encouraged patients — hijabi or otherwise — to self-advocate for their needs whenever possible. 

“It’s ridiculous how many concerns get overlooked because women, especially women from certain backgrounds, are stereotyped as being too dramatic,” said Ajeen. One way patients can combat that is by requesting documentation of the reasons they are being denied care after detailing their symptoms. “Women know their bodies. If they have gone through the trouble of making to the doctor’s office, they should not be dismissed and turned away there.”