Sunday, December 17, 2006


When nurses are Muslim
Mohammed Wajihuddin
[ 17 Dec, 2006 0936hrs ISTTIMES NEWS NETWORK ]

MUMBAI: Their hair is tied into modest ponytails and braids. Their eyes are kohl-smeared and twinkling. Their spotless white uniform makes them look distinguished. And when they talk, they look into your eyes.These are some of the 20 teenaged girls, mostly Muslims, training to be nurses. Not a popular profession in the community. Conservative Muslim families don't encourage their daughters to take up a job which entails touching and tending to the opposite sex. It's extremely rare to encounter a Muslim nurse in this country. Even if families are willing to let their girls become nurses, clerics and friends would bemoan the decision. Yet, the forces of modern times are egging some girls, against all opposition, to pursue a profession that is not just noble, but increasingly lucrative with employment prospects in wealthier countries.

Anjuman Khairul Islam (AKI), a 75-year-old charitable trust which runs over 40 educational institutions across Maharashtra, opened a nursing school earlier this year in Mumbai. "Muslims have entirely neglected this segment. We thought nursing would help empower women in a better way than teaching does," says Sayeeda Dadarkar, general secretary, AKI college, seated at the institution's headquarters at Nagpada in central Mumbai. Muslim girls who are allowed to work by their families usually choose the teaching profession. But that job today comes with salaries that are sometimes lower than a peon's. Dadarkar, a former teacher, knows the dismal prospects in teaching today. In contrast, there is an acute shortage of quality nurses and hospitals are willing to spend on them. According to a government survey in Maharashtra, there's just one nurse per 1,471 patients in the state.

Anjum Sheikh, daughter of a public telephone operator in Nasik, might have ended up as a teacher at a municipal school but a relative in Mumbai told her about the prospects in nursing. She is now a student in AKI. "My mother was against sending me for this course. She feared I would work with boys and get spoiled," says the chubby-cheeked Sheikh. But slowly her family relented. Her neighbours in Nashik still do not know about her radical career choice. "They all think I am in Mumbai studying in a normal college." Even girls like Sheikh whose family let her be a nurse, have been bestowed the freedom under the condition that they would tend only to females.

But the prejudice against the profession is not just an Islamic view. In north India, girls from upper caste Hindu families don't opt for this career either. Their uniforms and the nature of work that involves physical contact with patients and hospital paraphernalia is unacceptable to many families even if the girls are willing. Also, nurses have a somewhat rough going in the marriage market. In Bihar's villages, nurses, especially mid-wives, are lower-caste chamar women. For a princely sum of Rs 50, these uneducated mid-wives help women deliver babies.

Even among Christian Malayalees who dominate the profession in India and in the Gulf to such an extent that some people actually believe all Indian nurses are from Kerala, there is a subtle religious pressure. The Church discourages women from working in hospitals that conduct abortions because the deed is against the tenets of the religion. "The Fifth Commandment which talks against killing is for every Christian, including the nurses. We tell them not to become partners in killing and abortion is a killing," says Father Zacharia, director of Mumbai-based Jesus Nurses Fraternity which has 4,000 members.

The courageous Muslim girls who are undergoing training in AKI against societal pressures are mostly from impoverished families. Umera Kazi from the Mumbra orphanage always wanted to become a doctor, but couldn't make it to the merit list. Nursing came closest to her doctor dream. So, when opportunity beckoned, she took it.
The training that these girls are undergoing is strenuous. They spend endless hours in the lab, the library and visit to village health centres. The tough schedule leaves little time for leisure. Yet the girls steal an hour or so for TV. But even here, the priorities have changed. Instead of watching soaps as they used to, now the trainee nurses watch Discovery or the news channels, preferably the English ones. "We have to enrich our vocabulary and improve our spoken English," says Shaheen Siddiqui, a student.

Needless to say, the nursing institute faces immense pressure from clerics. They quoted scriptures, saying Islam lays emphasis on women's modesty. Undeterred, the college responds with an instance from the Prophet's times when Rufaida, one of his female companions, nursed the injured during a battle. "That was a special occasion," argues Mufti Abdul Ahad Falahi, a Mumbai-based cleric. However, he too concedes that the scriptures do not stop women from becoming nurses as long as they do not flout some tenets. The institute's lanky director Mohammed Arshad says, "We told the parents that we wanted to groom their daughters to serve the sick, not for a walk on the ramp."


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