LONDON: Christmas was a normal working day at the Accident and Emergency Department of Pilgrim Hospital Boston in Lincolnshire, the United Kingdom, where Farah Shaheera Roslan was on duty.
It was a normal workload, with some staff wearing the festive colour to bring some Christmas cheer in the usually not-very-cheerful atmosphere.
For Farah, who hails from Seremban, the last few days had been less than normal when out of the obscurity of the hospital wards, she was suddenly catapulted to public attention after pictures of her in hospital scrubs made international news headlines.
She had been contacted by the media and people from all over the world, and did not even get the chance to celebrate her 26th birthday. It was a lot to take in for the young junior doctor.
The headline-grabbing element in the stories that was inevitably viralled, was the disposable hijab she was wearing, one that she had invented and introduced to the Derby Hospital Trust, believed to be the first to do so for its Muslim female staff.
“Alhamdulillah, a lot of good things happened this year,” said Farah, reflecting on the hectic year that promised to be even more hectic in the coming year.
Having just tied the knot to another doctor, Luqman Safwan bin Cik Mohd Fauzi, Farah, who had done research on dress codes allowed in wards and theatres of hospitals before finding the right solution, is now thinking of ways to move forward.
Farah came to study medicine in the UK in January 2016 and did the first half of her medical school at International Medical University (IMU) in Kuala Lumpur and the other half at University of Nottingham.
It was during her final year as a medical student that Farah had an experience that was to bring about the change that is making waves in the operating theatres in the UK.
“Being a medical student, the theatre itself can be an intimidating place to be in due to the strict infection policy control,” Farah wrote in an article to be published soon.
“Imagine the anxiety I had as the one with a headscarf. There was a point that I was even pulled out of the theatre for wearing
my headscarf and was asked to replace it with an orthopedic hood.
“I did not blame the theatre staff as they were only doing what the trust policy suggested, and they were kind enough to help me search for the hood in the orthopedic theatre and a pair of scissors to make an adjustment to the hood for me to put one on.
“Nevertheless, when I returned to the theatre after missing the first half of the surgery, my focus was no longer on the operation, which I was initially excited to observe and secretly hoped to scrub in... it was the inevitable humiliation I experienced for being singled out as if I did something wrong just because the policy was not able to accommodate the different dress code I have due to my faith.”
THE TURNING POINT
The experience was the turning point for Farah and now for other hijab-wearing medical staff working in operating theatres as well.
The dress code for working in the theatres varies from trust to trust. It is an issue that has not been formally addressed, until now.
Other doctors working in hospitals in the UK are in agreement to this.
“This has been a contentious one for a while. Of course, the purpose is to keep our hair out in the operating theatre and any hijab should be okay.
“But, of course, the cleanliness of the hijab cannot be ensured if it is individually-sourced so there is a gap in the market for the supply.
“My friends who wear hijab mostly wear the inner of the hijab and apply the hat,” said another doctor.
“Most do not even mention the use of headscarf in operating theatres,” said Farah.
But necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
From then on, Farah did a lot of research and found that “more than half of women experienced problems trying to wear headscarves in operating theatres; feeling embarrassed, anxious and even bullied”.
Some hijab-wearing doctors felt they’re being denied the chance of pursuing their dream of a career in surgery as they are torn between their religious beliefs and the National Health Service dress code.
Farah is not one to be deterred by this, not by the humiliation that she experienced.
When she was a Foundation Year One doctor at Nottingham University Hospital, Farah was acknowledged by senior clinicians mainly due to her proactive role as the foundation doctor representative, bridging between her colleagues, administration and senior clinicians in the Junior Doctor Forum.
She was named one “leading by example”, one with “infectious enthusiasm” and one who has “great leadership qualities”.
These are the qualities that made the young doctor resilient in the face of humiliation, which she accepted as a challenge — the lemon that was thrown at her that she turned into the proverbial lemonade.
Farah is now a Foundation Year Two doctor, equivalent to a houseman, during which time she has to decide on her career path.
“In October, I met Gillian Tierney, a consultant general and colorectal surgeon at the University Hospitals of Derby and Burton (UHDB), to seek career tips. She is a supportive mentor whom I have admired since medical school and inspired me to become a surgeon.
“She is also the training programme director in the School of Surgery for the East Midlands region. We spoke about some of the challenges women face in this field and this was when the topic of headscarf came up.”
She realised that this was a problem that she could no longer brush off because it does not only affect her, but also a community of hijab-wearing students and staff.
“If this issue continues to be unaddressed, it can lead to a reduction in workforce diversity, staff dissatisfaction and loss of valuable learning opportunities for students.”
It was Tierney who suggested that Farah look for possible solutions with the promise that she would help to implement the initiative and get her connected
to the right people to support the project. And the rest is, of course, history.
THE MAKING OF DISPOSABLE HIJAB
Farah started with Emma Wiley, consultant microbiologist with a special interest in dresscode policy and infection control, and spoke to representatives of the British Islamic Medical Association to find out how much work they have done to address the issue.
She also contacted her friends in Malaysia and asked them how they dealt with the issue back at home.
“My friends told me about the washable and disposable headscarves provided in operating theatres and shared the photos, details of the supplier and cost as stated on the website.”
A friend, who is a colleague at the same hospital, Fadzlien Zahari, also helped to point her to the right direction and the Malaysian company, Medicos, which supplied tudung protective cap.
Farah then found a UK supplier, Medline — one of the biggest theatre supply chains — which positively responded to her email and sent her fabrics of different sizes and materials to test.
She then gathered a group of female Muslim medical students and doctors in a WhatsApp group and asked them to take a vote on the most suitable headscarf — the majority voted for a disposable triangular cloth supplied by Medline, which is easy to style and comfortable to wear.
Last month, Farah showed a picture of herself donning the disposable headscarf to Tierney, who happily approved it.
“The next day, Nigel Roberts, the deputy general manager theatre lead of UHDB, sent me an email to let me know that he had already ordered the first batch of disposable scarves to be supplied to all theatres in the trust.”
She believes that the disposable hijab will soon be in the Medline catalogue because there is now a demand for it.
Things have certainly moved very fast.
Farah had found the middle ground between “dress code due to faith” and the “passion” of being in the operating theatre.
“I was truly over the moon hearing this news as I know that this would be a crucial step to accommodate headwear requirements to positively influence inclusivity and opportunities in the workplace.
“I am hoping to follow this up by doing a survey to assess the use of disposable headscarf and its impact on staff and students.
“Now that the spotlight is on me, I hope to use it for a good cause, especially in increasing awareness of the struggle of hijab-wearing Muslim women in operating theatres, and helping them to make similar changes in the areas they study and work in.”
“I hope that my story and initiative will inspire individuals not to be apologetic for being different as each of us matter. Diversity is our strength,” said Farah, who aims to be a surgeon.