More than 15 Saudi female nurses went on a strike last week because they don’t want to work with male patients, the daily al-Watan reported on Friday. The nurses who work at Hassan al-Afaliq Rehabilitative Healthcare Center in Mubarraz, eastern Saudi Arabia, told the newspaper they find it embarrassing to change catheters for male patients or bathe them.
The nurses are demanding that the hospital administration hire male nurses to do these tasks, according to the newspaper, which attributed to a nurse saying that the administration argued that treating male patients is part of the contract the nurses signed when they accepted the job. The nurse admitted that this was indeed part of the contract, but said that it does not cover bathing patients.
Al-Hayat daily reported on Wednesday that the striking nurses have written letters to the Head of Health Affairs in al-Ahsa region, where the government-run hospital is located, to protest “being forced to see men’s private parts during bathing them and changing their clothes.” The nurses also wrote another letter to the chief of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice as they consider dealing with male patients a violation of fatwas issued by senior religious scholars in Saudi Arabia.
Since they have begun their strike last week, the nurses have been coming to the hospital everyday and sitting inside one room until the end of their shifts when they sign out and leave. A dozen of nurses have been investigated by the Health Affairs department in the region, the newspaper said.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative Muslim country where gender segregation rules are strictly enforced. Government hospitals are one of the few places in the country where men and women can work side by side. But religious conservatives remain unhappy about the status quo.
Some clerics have in the past warned parents against sending their daughters to medicine schools because they will end up working in mixed hospitals. At the same time, conservatives want their female relatives to be only treated by women doctors to the point that they would often refuse to see the doctor if the only available doctor is a man.
Last December, a Saudi man sparked controversy when he tweeted that Saudi female doctors and nurses are promiscuous. Okaz newspaper reported that female doctors and nurses were seeking legal action against the man for defamation.
Popular television talk show host Turki al-Dakhil wrote that he hopes people would stop slandering Saudi women working as nurses. “To attack Saudi women working in this profession means opening the door for female nurses from outside the country,“ he said, “thereby keeping these jobs outside the Saudi purview.”
To change that negative perception, Saudi nursing students at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah produced a video released on the International Nurses Day this month highlighting the their role and showing society’s appreciation to their work. “I’m proud to be a nurse,” the narrator said, “and proud of my job to put a smile on the patents’ faces.”
Due to the conservative resistance to women studying medicine and limited capacity of medical schools in the country, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly independent on foreign doctors and nurses. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Health earlier this year, almost 77 percent of doctors working at government hospitals are non-Saudi. As for nurses, only 52 percent of them are Saudi nationals.
Religious conservatives say they have a solution to this problem: segregated hospitals. Such hospitals, they argue, would preserve the privacy and sanctity of Muslim women seeking healthcare and would also encourage more young women to work in the field. In 2009, a group of clerics and doctors wrote letters to the Minister of Health and the Shoura Council demanding women-only hospitals. The signatories claimed that they have a plan to ensure that such hospitals would be successful.
However, experts in the field told al-Sharq newspaper that the calls to segregate hospitals are unrealistic and cannot be achieved.
“A hospital is not only a doctor,” said Fatima al-Mulhem, an oncologist at King Fahad University Hospital in Khobar. “The doctor needs the services of nurses, technicians and other staff.” Al-Mulhem added that the concerns about failing to respect Islamic principles are unjustified. Most hospitals would consider the requests of patients to be treated by male or female doctors, she said, except in emergency cases that require saving lives regardless of the gender.
The government does not see the benefits of building segregated hospitals. Ministry of Health’s spokesman Khaled Marghalani told the newspaper that while they always look forward to provide more services, they believe that healthcare services offered to women are adequate and protect their privacy.