Perspective: The Face Veil in UK Hospitals (BBC Interview)

An interview on BBC Radio Leeds with Dr Fariha Khan, serving as Vice President of Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association, on whether or not medical professionals should wear the full face veil in NHS hospitals.


14 thoughts on “Perspective: The Face Veil in UK Hospitals (BBC Interview)

  1. Sorry if I seem to be banging this drum too hard, but I’d like to amend my earlier post where I said I think a ban is justified by my experience of working in the NHS. That’s not really an argument, therefore I withdraw it. But I do continue to think a ban is justified, because…

    LBC radio recently ran a discussion on this topic. Many english people phoned in, and time after time they said they wouldn’t be able to put their trust in a person whose face they couldn’t see. The only people who phoned in to say they’d be happy for a doctor with niqab were muslim listeners. Obviously this is a biased sample, but it gives some sort of evidence.

    The only other option would be to ask doctors to remove their niqab on a case by case basis at the request of patients, which doesn’t seem workable to me. Particularly the most vulnerable patients (I’m thinking of those who have cancer or some other serious diagnosis) are often shy to disagree with their doctor in anything. We have to reach out to such people and build a rapport with them, and I don’t think it would be helpful to put patients in a position where they had to tell their doctors they weren’t comfortable with their niqab.

    Also, the idea that there is anti-muslim sentiment and therefore we might be asked to take off our hijab also by some patients… is missing the point, in my view. If anybody were to say “take off your niqab because it reminds me of Islam” then that would be illegal under the Discrimination Act, and of course that’s not the point. It’s entirely reasonable that a British person would like to see his doctor’s face for purposes of rapport and communication, and not because he’s an islamophobe. If the same person were to insist on his doctor showing her hair to him, then of course hair is not reasonably a device to build rapport and this would suggest islamophobia which would be unacceptable.

  2. I agree that this is fabricated to some extent. Both the media and islamophobes and also muslim extremists promote such stories in order to create friction and discord. In this context, Dr Khan’s moderate voice is particularly welcome and helpful. Having said that, there is definitely a nascent movement in the UK to create an “islamic society” as a separate entity within the UK, and the idea has been floated that such communities should be governed by shariah and not by British law. Hijab and niqab seem more obvious on the streets than they did 20 years ago. I love the hijab, but at the same time just yesterday my work colleague told me that a muslim woman wearing hijab gesticulated rudely with her fingers because my colleague was slow in car parking… unfortunately, this is not the first of such stories, and (sorry for digressing from the principal thrust of our discussion) but I feel this reflects a general prevailing tendency to emphasise the external aspects of Islam and ignore the aspects of the soul.

    Regarding the ideas in support of muslim women wearing niqab, here’s my thoughts:

    1. The Middle East cannot usefully be compared to a European model, in my opinion. I’m married to a female Arab doctor who trained in the Middle East, and their entire set-up is geared towards separation. For instance, there are almost no male gynecologists, and the ones that exist are always drinking tea because no woman wants to see them, whereas in the UK the majority of gynecology consultants continue to be men. There are always female and male doctors on-call, who sleep in separate quarters, and it’s quite common for female doctors to ask a male colleague to examine male patients.

    2. Furthermore, Middle Eastern medical schools teach almost no medical ethics or communication skills, whereas British medical schools and British culture emphasises this greatly. Standard of medical care is difficult to evaluate in this context. For instance, Saudi Arabia officially has no cases of HIV. Well you might say, “How successful is the Saudi medical system!”. Or you might say, “Nobody admits they have HIV because nobody has that relationship of trust with their doctor”. Again, I know from my family connections that patient confidentiality simply doesn’t exist in the Arabian Gulf, and I’d be surprised if it exists in Pakistan.

    3. Regarding confession, this is an old practice and I’m not sure it would go down well in modern society. Regardless, I think that part of the comfort of confession is that the confessor and the confessee aren’t looking at each other. This is different from when a patient is having to expose his body and personal history to a person behind a mask. Furthermore, the confessee believes that the confessor is representing God, and of course most patients don’t think of their doctors in these terms.

    4. Regarding the hypothetical dozen doctors who deal with patients and wear the face veil, of course in terms of numbers and economics, it doesn’t warrant media attention or the attention of Government ministers. But of course, some issues are economically insignificant, but hugely significant constitutionally and philosophically. All minority rights by definition are generally insignificant but modern constitutions and laws give great attention to minority rights because of the important constitutional issues they raise, ie the liberty of the individual versus the interests of society.

    I completely understand the great media attention and general concern expressed over this issue, if we take this in the context of the increasing trend of muslims towards extremism. Of course, I also recognise that Western politicians may themselves be playing with the sentiments of their people, and even encouraging islamic extremism in order to promote antipathy towards Islam. Nevertheless, purely on grounds of what I feel as a doctor who’s worked for several years in the NHS, I personally think it’s acceptable for hospital trusts to ban the niqab on the basis of functionality and what is in the best interests of patients.

  3. Thank you all for your continued contributions. This has been an interesting discussion and all views have added great value. Please do keep commenting both here and on other posts.

  4. I completely agree with what Adam has said, but if I was in a hospital setting as a patient, even I would be intimidated to be seen by someone who completely covered her face. As Dr Khan pointed out, I’ve never come across any such doctors, but for the sake of the argument, I would rather be seen by someone who’s face I can see. Similarly, however, I would prefer not to be seen by someone with lots of tattoos and piercings, but this doesn’t make it right for authorities to ban such things that I would not “prefer”. Since when are laws made based on public opinion?
    I, personally, am aspiring to be part of the future generation of doctors. I can’t say that this debate would bother me if it continued to this extent, but it seems that the next step would be to a greater extent in regards to the practice of Purdah.
    Despite my opinion on the issue, I argue that there is actually no issue regarding the veil. This issue seems slightly fabricated in the sense that it is not as significant as made out to be.

  5. Sorry only come across this conversation about my interview so I thought maybe I should explain my reasons for giving this confused reply.
    First of all as Adam said , according to Quran, Hadith, Sunnah and writings of Promised Messiah AS as well as addresses delivered by Khulafas over the years on this issue, there is purdah of the face ( sorry if I am assuming that you are an ahmadi) We have to be very careful when we start defining these things ourselves .
    But there are circumstances when she can uncover her face I.e if she is working etc. Huzoor has also given clear guidelines what a minimum purdah should be and in that purdah woman can leave her face uncovered if she is not wearing make up and is covering outer parts of her face.
    Of course I agree with you that a doctor or a nurse should not cover her face while treating her patients or communicating with her but I was not going to make a judgement about anyone on live radio as its not my place to judge.
    Of course it seems silly that on one hand this doctor ( fictional character to be honest as I have yet to come across a doctor who covers her face at work) would insist on covering her face and on the other hand would touch and examine the male patients !
    But saying that when I was working in Pakistan I covered my face and examined my male patients. And in my opinion just because I am examining my patients they did not have an automatic right to see my face as well. If you visit Fazl e Umer Hospital in rabwah doctors and nurses have their faces covered and they are treating their patients.
    Of course there are cultural issues that come into play here, work ethos is different in Pakistan. Communicating with your patients effectively and being empathetic is probably not the key priorities and people are used to seeing women in veils.
    In western countries its different, you need to communicate with your patients and its amazing that you have that great trust between doctor and patient.
    And as far as Muslim woman being a patient is concerned Islam is not a rigid religion at all, Islam allows a woman to be treated by a man whether he is a neurosurgeon or a cardio thoracic surgeon or a mere mortal GP like me.
    And as for the resources of NHS I hope you dont mind but that is not a strong argument because I have yet to hear a single comment or read anything about any health professional who covers her face. If there is no one insisting on doing this ,nhs resources cannot be stretched. It was a no news really that media hyped up.

  6. Three points I forgot to make:

    1. I would be interested to know if the standard of medical care is lower in Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, where it is common to encounter women doctors wearing face veils. It would also be interesting to know how medical care is impacted by the surgical mask culture that exists in Japan.

    2. Regarding conversations about intimate private patient information, I would have thought that a certain level of anonymity would place the patient at greater ease. For example, in Christianity the tradition of confession exists and in essence achieves the same thing.

    3. You made the following comment: ‘… but it’s simply unreasonable to hope that patients from a British cultural background will reveal such information to a person with a mask on her face’.

    In the latest BBC poll, which hit the headlines this week, it was found that the majority of young people living in the UK do not trust Muslims. It could thus be argued that anything which is symbolically Muslim might reasonably act as a barrier between a Muslim doctor and a patient. The Hijab and headscarf would certainly act as a barrier. Should those also be restricted for the sake of rapport and trust building?

    I suspect that there are no more than a couple of dozen women doctors in the UK who wear the face veil. Of those doctors, there are probably a dozen or so who deal with patients. Do those women warrant public debate, bans that restrict religious freedom, the time of Ministers of State who have greater challenges to overcome in the NHS (and country), newspaper headlines, television debates, etc? Is this debate a precursor to a larger debate about the headscarf? Is it healthy to address religious tensions through immediate talk of bans or through greater dialogue?

  7. I do see your point of view, but am yet to be convinced that the veil reduces the ability of a female doctor to treat a patient or that it slows down the healing process.

    Pragmatism: You have pointed out very specific instances where it would be pragmatic for a woman to remove her veil (i.e. in dealing with a terminally ill patient). I have not heard of women who wear the veil and insist on keeping it on in such a scenario. I will thus presume that they would remove it. Similarly, I will assume that they would remove it if a patient needs to read lips in order understand the doctor.

    Now we have a working policy which stipulates that in the case of male (because women can remove the veil for women and children) terminally ill patients, mentally vulnerable patients and the deaf, a woman must remove her face veil. We can add to this that the identification of hospital staff by security officers requires the face veil be removed.

    We don’t appear to have yet arrived at the point of a full ban.

  8. You’re completely correct again that the matter of keeping one’s eyes lowered is different in quality from covering one’s face. As you pointed out, one may compromise healthcare whereas the other would not clearly do so.

    There are couple of points I would like to make in this regard. By putting oneself forward to enter the medical profession, I think one voluntarily enters a very unique role in life. One has to understand that this role does not follow the standard norms of society. Not only physically, but socially it is a peculiar role. For instance, for a doctor to function, he/she may have to speak to a complete stranger, and (in specific contexts) ask that person’s sexual history. A routine question we ask every patient who is admitted to hospital is, “Do you use street drugs?”. There are many even more extreme examples of interaction, but I will not mention them for the sake of modesty. In this context, it’s difficult enough for a patient to have this relationship with a complete stranger, but it’s simply unreasonable to hope that patients from a British cultural background will reveal such information to a person with a mask on her face.

    One of the reasons for the niqab, in fact, is to stop a rapport developing between a man and woman. I don’t think it functions purely to hide beauty. The face is not a mere object of beauty. The face expresses love, compassion, empathy, sadness, encouragement, joy. However eloquently a person may verbalise these emotions, such words cannot convey what the face can convey. Now in normal social inter-relationships, there is an argument that a woman should not show such facial expressions to a man. But for a doctor, in my opinion this would be disastrous. Imagine a doctor is telling you that you have cancer, and you cannot even see the face of the person… in such a situation, the niqab creates a barrier between the patient and doctor, and that barrier has no right to exist. How can a doctor say to a patient, “I’m going to ask you all types of intimate questions, but I don’t want to show you my face because you’re a man and I’m a woman”. It sends out all sorts of messages which are very destructive to the doctor-patient relationship.

    I can understand those scholars who say, “Well show me the reason for her to show her face… why does a doctor need to show her face in order to give medical advice?”. But with respect, such scholars do not understand the reality and the complexity of the medical profession. Doctors do not just sit there handing out drugs or cutting people with scalpels. The very first thing that a doctor has to do, is develop a rapport and a relationship of trust with the patient. I believe such a rapport is difficult to achieve in our secular society if a female doctor covers her face. Now it may be that an Islamic scholar says, “What is this rapport nonsense? Antibiotics, I can understand how they save life! Surgery, yes! But how does rapport justify the abrogation of one of God’s commandments?!?” But rapport is incredibly important for the medical profession.

  9. Again, this is not my position, but out of respect for the alternative viewpoint, I will postulate what the opposing view might be.

    We both agree that it is within reason that some scholars and their followers might take the view that the Qur’an explicitly argues that wearing the veil is an obligatory act. Therefore, women with that view would consider the removal of the veil ‘unnecessarily’ as acting against the will of Almighty God.

    Such people would also accept that necessity allows for situations whereby a woman can remove her veil. For example, if she required medical treatment and cannot be seen by a female doctor. Here, health supersedes covering one’s face. Also, if for security purposes a woman has to identify herself at an airport. Here public interest supersedes the right of the individual.

    Similarly, lowering one’s gaze would be superseded by the need to see someone for the purpose of treating an illness they might be suffering from (within a doctor-patient context).

    So far this position seems in agreement with your own.

    Regarding a doctor wearing a face veil, has it been evidenced that there exists a necessity for her to remove her veil? Would keeping the veil on inhibit her ability to treat a patient? If I am in hospital tomorrow, is there evidence to prove that I will receive better medical care from a doctor without a veil than one with a veil? If someone fractures a part of their body, will that fracture heal quicker because the doctor treating him/her does not wear a veil? Such scholars might argue that it is very reasonable to exempt women doctors from wearing the veil in a doctor-patient scenario, so long as it could be evidenced that removing the veil would make a tangible difference to the treatment of the patient.

    These are questions that such scholars would ask. If there is no evidence to clearly link better medical treatment to the removal of the veil then it would not fall under the exception of necessity and women following that legal school would choose to keep their veils on. If that means that they would loose their jobs then they would view adherence to God as greater than removing their veil on the basis of cultural (anecdotal) evidence and not professional scientific evidence.

    I am personally yet to hear compelling evidence that proves to me that removing the veil would equate to better treatment. I have heard many doctors state that removing the veil would put many patients at greater ease. That seems quite reasonable. However, it could reasonably be argued that many people would feel at greater ease if the doctor they are meeting for the first time, in a tense and nervous situation, did not have a strong foreign accent (sometimes difficult to follow), did not have tattoos, had minimal piercings, did not wear a turban, etc.

    I am interested to know your views on the above issues.

  10. I completely agree that certain muslim scholars interpret khimar and awrah to mean the face. But with respect, I would hope that no proper scholar of foresight from any madhhab would say this is obligatory in the sense that it should apply to medical professionals. Let me explain…

    If we accept that the Qur’an makes it obligatory for women to cover their faces, and that this cannot be compromised for medical professionals, then the Qur’an also makes it obligatory for men not to look at the beauty of women, and by similar logic then this also cannot be compromised for medical professionals.

    In this case, we must have an equal number of female cardiothoracic surgeons, for example. We must also have an equal number of female neurosurgeons, since it is impossible for a man to perform surgery on a woman’s brain without seeing her hair (which is not permissible). In fact, even simple things will be impossible for a male doctor to perform. For instance, one of the first signs of ill health is that a person’s respiratory rate increases, but a male doctor would have to look at a female patient’s chest to count her respiratory rate. Which is forbidden by the Qur’an. Therefore the only way that we could completely follow the Qur’anic instructions regarding awrah, without any compromise, would be to have entirely separate gender-teams to look after men and women. Of course, this would mean we would have to recruit many more women as doctors, and these separate teams would have to be available day and night, which would take many more women away from their families and children, and this would compromise another Islamic value. At the moment, many female doctors (including non-muslims) choose professions such as GP or dermatology which allow them to look after their children, but under this new proposed “Islamic” system we would have to divert them to careers such as neurosurgery where there is a lack of women in both Islamic and non-muslim countries. This is the logical consequence of enforcing “awrah” on medical professionals.

    It seems obvious to me that the Qur’anic instructions on awrah are general instructions, but that the medical profession is a very special case. As part of our routine, we medical doctors daily do things which (let’s forget Islam) would even be forbidden by secular atheists if we weren’t medical professionals. We study anatomy, we ask intimate questions, we examine pulses and more! It seems illogical to me that a person should do all this, and then insist that Islam obliges her to cover her face. If this is the case, then Islam also obliges male doctors to keep their eyes lowered, and Islam effectively makes healthcare an impossibility.

  11. Your argument appears to hinge on the assumption that covering the face is not obligatory for women in Islam. An opinion does however exist that the words ‘khimar’ (covering) and ‘awra’ (nakedness or hidden part of the body), as mentioned in the Qur’an, indicate that the face should be covered. This is by no means a marginal opinion and accepted by many. I am not suggesting that this is the Ahmadi interpretation of these words, but that it is a common interpretation within the Sunni world.

    In such a context, for a lady to remove her veil would be to go against what she believes to be a command of God. The ethical dilemma which arises is that to allow the veil for such people would be to respect their right to practice religion freely while impacting upon the public interest issues you have outlined. Conversely, to prevent them from working while wearing the veil would be to tell women who wear the full veil that they cannot become doctors and practice in this country. This could then be extended to teachers, public servants and even lawyers in court. At what point is something rightly banned due to public interest concerns and at what point does a ban itself become a means of oppression?

    Many who stand firmly against the veil, particularly some notable feminists (by no means all, though), argue that the veil is an oppressive tool which prevents women from achieving in society. Conversely, would a ban not reinforce the perceived stereotype relied upon by such people if the state told women who wear the veil that they will not be allowed to become a doctor, teacher or civil servant in this country?

    I personally believe that there is a public interest issues here. It seems highly appropriate, however, that policies and solutions are built organically over time; based on the real issues faced by trusts. Blanket bans invariably involve some sort of oppression as the necessary is banned along with the unnecessary. The arguments involved and proposed solutions need to be far more nuance than to simply stand for or against.

  12. In general an excellent interview by Dr Khan. However, I think there’s an issue around the niqab. Firstly, the niqab is not obligatory in Islam. Secondly, I think the niqab definitely creates a social barrier, which is some circumstances can be desirable and in other circumstances (eg the patient-doctor) can give rise to issues.

    However, Dr Khan’s stance is not clear on what should happen in the NHS when a patient wishes to be treated by a doctor whose face he/she can see. She appears to say the patient has the right to see the doctor’s face and at the same time the doctor has the right to cover her face. In terms of philosophical morality, I accept Dr Khan’s position. However, in terms of real-world morality, the fact is that NHS resources are increasingly scarce. There is a paucity of trained doctors in specific specialties. For instance, if a GP decided to wear the niqab, then we could reasonably expect quite a few patients to feel they would prefer to see another GP. Similarly, I’m sure that most British patients would not wish to have surgery or be anaesthetised by a doctor whose face they could not see, because surgical procedures are inherently frightening, and the experience becomes even more intimidating if there is a “faceless” person cutting your body open. The NHS simply could not function if certain doctors wear niqab and therefore are avoided by a significant percentage of patients, and consequently their medical colleagues have to take on increased workload. Furthermore, I do not think it is fair or reasonable to expect a British non-religious society to re-organize the NHS delivery of healthcare to this extent, only to cater for a religious practice which is not even mandatory in that religion. This country guarantees us a freedom of religion which even muslim countries don’t give to muslims… but I think Islam is not only about our personal liberty to follow our religion and guard our modesty… Islam is also about the rights of others, including non-muslims. Of course, if it obligatory in Islam, then that is another matter; but I personally do not agree with following a non-obligatory Islamic practice which alienates or compromises good relations within the healthcare setting, for example.

  13. Very good and inspirational interview, specially for those women who lives in this society and thinks that if start wearing veil (Hijab) then we can’t progress in our professional life or we can not get any success.

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