I teach women nursing students English for the Ministry of the National Guard. Each year I meet dozens of young women eager for a career, but must surmount tremendous obstacles to achieve their goals.
Those obstacles can be daunting. It is not just learning English in general and English medical terminology in particular, but Saudi society adds undue psychological pressure on students.
Society frowns upon young women working as nurses because they come in contact with the opposite sex or they are required to perform duties that are beneath them. Some students’ families often add pressure by actively attempting to convince them to quit their studies. Brothers, in particular, have a nasty habit of finding clever ways to stop their sisters from earning their nursing certificate.
At the end of the school year, we usually have a handful of girls who have dropped out, but the majority persevere and graduate to become full-fledge nurses. I am both proud of them and I empathize with their struggles. Even if the students don’t practice nursing, they have reached a considerable milestone in their lives by earning a certificate in a specialized profession.
Yet many new female nurses place their own psychological barriers that not only impede their career, but also result in these women failing their employer, the patient and ultimately themselves.
According to a recent report in this newspaper, many new female Saudi nurses have decided that they are above performing certain tasks. They will not treat a male patient. They will not change bed linen for a male patient. They will not even work night shifts.
To make matters worse, these nurses’ colleagues — virtually all expats and non-Arab — enable the Saudi nurses by permitting them not to perform their job and instead give the work to another non-Saudi nurse.
I find this inexcusable. Saudi nurses will cite religious reasons for not performing this kind of work, but in reality the nurses, with their sense of entitlement, believe it’s beneath their dignity to change sheets on a bed or have contact with a man who is not their mahram. When they refuse to do this kind of work, their colleagues must pick up the slack and do the job for them. How this is fair and equitable for nurses who must shoulder the extra burden of doing their fellow nurses’ work, I don’t know.
While I am disappointed that the expat nurses seem to think it’s OK to allow the Saudis off the hook, I was heartened to read that Sabah Abu Zinadah, the chief of the Supreme Nursing Council, would have none of that.
According to Arab News, Zinadah, said, “No health practitioner can refuse to do any duty of the job, regardless of the reasons. Any refusal to perform certain duties is considered dereliction of duty.”
Then Zinadah hit the nail on the head: “I see no religious justification for their behavior. Even during the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) days there were no male nurses. They were all female. And they used to perform any duties required of them.”
I love my nursing students, and I love the fact that most of them don’t wilt under the pressure of their family to abandon a promising and noble career. But nursing is not a job that provides a salary and a title. It means actual work. It means tending to the sick and injured, whether they are male or female. It’s not for the nurse to make the distinction of which gender to treat. Imagine if an emergency room nurse refused to help treat a male patient on the verge of death. I wonder if she would feel any sense of responsibility for a man who died because she couldn’t bare the indignity of touching his body.
There are no mysteries to nursing, and any young woman who chooses the profession goes in with eyes wide open. Their employer should not give them special dispensation to shirk their duties when there is no religious, moral or professional justification.