HuffPost UK joined forces with the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA) for a flagship survey of more than 100 Muslim medics about the Islamophobia they experienced at work.
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But many Muslim healthcare staff have admitted they regularly face Islamophobic abuse from patients, too, with some refusing to be treated by Muslim doctors at all and others bringing up terrorism or even accusing them of killing people.
A startling 80% of Muslim medics surveyed by HuffPost UK revealed they had experienced Islamophobia or racism from patients in the NHS.
Shehla Imtiaz-Umer, a GP in Derby, says it isn’t just abuse from patients that is upsetting – it’s also situations when colleagues don’t stand up for her, or ask if she “misunderstood” what happened.
Once, working a night shift as part of her training, she was asked to speak to a cancer patient at the end of his life.
“We knew he was going to die and resuscitation would be futile,” she told HuffPost UK. “However, he and his family decided they wanted full resuscitation. I was asked to speak to him and his family, but by the time I got there, his family had gone.”
As soon as he saw her enter the bay wearing her headscarf, the patient – who was in his 60s – told Imtiaz-Umer he didn’t want to talk to her. He said: “Your religion is about killing people and mine is about saving lives.”
Imtiaz-Umer said: “It was awful. I was upset and disgusted that someone could have such a viewpoint.
“But I was also offended. I was a Muslim doctor working a night shift and my whole purpose for becoming a medic was to save and improve lives.
“But his perception based on seeing my hijab was that I wanted to do the opposite.”
His words were: ‘Your religion is about killing people and mine is about saving lives.’Shehla Imtiaz-Umer, a GP
She admitted: “I knew I would cry if I stayed there so I had a sob off the ward.”
But when she went to the staff room and shared her experience with colleagues, hoping for some words of comfort, she was stunned by their reaction.
“There was just pin drop silence and no empathy from my white colleagues, which was disappointing,” she recalled. “They asked if I was sure that’s what the patient meant and said: ‘Maybe you misunderstood.’
“I’m not saying my white colleagues are racist but I feel they don’t understand as they’ve never experienced it. I’ve been called a P*** most of my life. Their reaction spoke volumes.”
“I’ve had patients say they don’t want to be treated by me because I am Muslim,” she said.
“One patient asked: ‘What’s Osama Bin Laden’s daughter doing here?’ after seeing my hijab.
“I get Islamophobic remarks at least once a week. It’s worse when something has happened and Islam is in the news.
“People make terrorist comments and tell me: ‘Go back to your own country.’ Most colleagues stick up for me. The most hurtful thing is when they don’t and tell me to grin and bear it.”
One patient asked: ‘What’s Osama Bin Laden’s daughter doing here?’ after seeing my hijab.Madiyah Bandali, a graduate paramedic
Once, Bandali was treating a patient for a head injury after he’d been in a fight. “He said: ‘I don’t want a dirty P*** touching me,’ and tried to get violent. My mentor had to drag him away before I got hurt. It was really frightening.”
Bandali admitted her parents have begged her to leave the NHS as they are worried she’ll get hurt. She describes herself as someone who is confident with little self-doubt, but confesses there have been times she has felt overwhelmed and close to giving up.
“I sometimes questioned why I was putting myself through it,” she said. “I wanted to be a paramedic as I was interested in emergency medicine and wanted to be hands-on straight away and help save people.
“But I had no idea I would face so many different challenges with Islamophobia.”
Conversations instigated by patients about Muslims and terrorism make many Muslim NHS workers feel uncomfortable, as if they are being asked to defend their religion.
Sabeeta Farooqi, a trainee GP in Leeds who wears a hijab, had a patient come to her with a urological issue when he suddenly began asking her questions about bombings and terrorism.
“The conversation came out of nowhere and I tried to get him back to his clinical problem and reminded him that’s why he was there,” she said. “I avoided his questions as I didn’t want a confrontation.”
The patient then asked Farooqi if she was OK with “examining his private parts” as she was a Muslim woman. “I told him I was a clinician and he was a patient and I was happy to examine him.”
The GP partner at the practice was supportive and asked if Farooqi wanted the patient removed from the register. “I said no as I didn’t feel right taking him off the list because of this incident,” she said. “But it left a big impact on me and I realised I was viewed differently because I was Muslim.”
Kiran Rahim, 34, a paediatric registrar working in London, says during her training she was taught to say: “I’m sorry you feel that way,” when subjected to abuse from patients.
“It was very much a view of: ‘The patient is always right,’” she said. “But I did not feel comfortable apologising for someone’s Islamophobia.
“As I’ve become more senior, I have realised NHS staff are not here to be abused. I now simply tell patients I don’t have to stand for their abuse or treat them.”
Ramsha Hanif, 27, a pharmacist in Derbyshire, agrees. She had a customer who would constantly ask her about her religion and ethnicity and tell her that her name wasn’t “very English”.
On one occasion, he asked her what her name was. When she answered, he replied: “No, it’s not, it’s ‘naan bread’!”
Hanif said: “He kept shouting it but I just ignored him.”
But when the customer came in the following time, he called Hanif “naan bread” again. “I told him I wasn’t doing his prescription but could direct him to another pharmacy,” she said.
“I stayed professional but realised I didn’t have to put up with it. I wasn’t really upset by it, but he had no right to call me that and I knew I had to take a stand.”
Medical student Khadija, 21, says Islamophobia from patients can be subtle as well as overt. “I’ve had occasions such as standing in a group of two medical students and asking a patient a question, only for them to address my white colleagues or tell me they don’t want to speak to me,” she said.
“Or they say things like: ‘You people have such difficult names,’ and question your ancestry, and make you feel different and alien.”
I never let my armour down and let patients know they’ve got to me. But I might go home and have a cry after a bad experience.Khadija, a medical student
Some days, Khadija admits going home after a day of placements having experienced “horrible Islamophobia” can make her feel she isn’t welcome or deserving of being a doctor.
“I’m a resilient person and regardless of how bad things get, I never let my armour down and let patients know they’ve got to me. But I might go home and have a cry after a bad experience.”
One 40-year-old male consultant has now left the NHS and moved abroad and told HuffPost UK the Islamophobia he and his family faced in the NHS and wider society was a factor.
One patient who had an appointment with him told his secretary he didn’t want to see a Muslim doctor and instead wanted to see a Christian one. “The secretary was shocked and said it was unacceptable,” he said.
“My line manager was supportive and it was addressed immediately. They wrote to the patient explaining the diversity and equality act and how he wasn’t able to choose the doctor he saw.”
The patient came in for his next appointment and the consultant treated him like every other patient and neither of them mentioned the issue.
However, the patient then made a complaint about him, saying he’d not given proper time and attention to his issues – even though he’d spent 45 minutes seeing him rather than the 30-minute consultation time expected.
“It was horrible,” admitted the consultant. “This patient categorically said he didn’t want to see me as I was Muslim.”
He says that while Islamophobia in the NHS contributed to his decision to move abroad, it wasn’t the only reason. “Islamophobia wasn’t confined to the NHS,” he said. “The attitude to Muslims was getting worse in society. My wife had her hijab pulled from her head in the supermarket and had nasty comments made about her.”
He added: “With the way things are propagated about Muslims, Islamophobia in the NHS is a consequence, not a cause.
“My fear is for the younger generation of Muslims entering the NHS, particularly if they’re visibly Muslim.”
A 35-year-old male nursing associate who works in Birmingham told HuffPost UK that, since Brexit, patients have become more vocal about Islamophobia.
“So many times, I have been told to ‘go back to my country’ by patients,” he said. “Sometimes, they tell me I smell, and I have been called a P*** and terrorist so many times.
“I was on one ward where a patient passed away and his family came and said: ‘You bloody P***. You killed our dad. Go back to your country.’ I hadn’t even looked after that patient. I was just on the ward.”
If politicians, world leaders and MPs seem able to say such things, others feel it is normal to be Islamophobic and even actively encouraged.
A senior registrar in emergency medicine told HuffPost UK: “People feel they can say what they want about Muslims as no one cares.
“If politicians, world leaders and MPs seem able to say such things, others feel it is normal to be Islamophobic and even actively encouraged.”
One doctor said Muslims in the NHS develop a thick skin. “One patient said: ’You must work for ISIS,′ and I told him: ‘No, I work for the NHS.’
“If abuse gets out of hand, you just tell security. Physical aggression is taken more seriously than verbal Islamophobic or racist abuse.”
Dr Salman Waqar, general secretary at BIMA, said: “Not to excuse their behaviour in any way, but it is often fuelled by the media narrative. If people are vulnerable and in pain, if they’ve been told foreign-looking or sounding people are not to be trusted, they can lash out.
“There are a lot of horrible stories about the Islamophobia people in the NHS face from patients.”
Iman Atta, director of Tell Mama – which supports victims of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate – told HuffPost UK they regularly receive reports of incidents of Islamophobia from health workers.
“Muslim NHS staff put themselves at stake on the front line, but in return, they are facing discrimination on an almost daily basis,” she said.
“Why should anyone as a human being be abused? Muslim people have a right to be doctors – and anything they want to be.”