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So much not known about Muslim nurses in Canada
May 10, 2017, By: Nasrin Saleh, RN, MPH

By virtue of wearing a hijab, I carry my Muslim identity with me every time I walk into a patient’s room or interact with a family member. I believe this identity shapes people’s perceptions of me as a nurse and takes precedence over my professional nursing identity. It also defines most of my interactions with patients and members of the public and increases the likelihood that I will feel the hurtful sting of racism. Many times, I am reminded — through someone’s casual comment, a momentary stare or an intentional othering (“not one of us”) statement — that I am different and that I do not belong.

The Canadian Muslim population is steadily growing. In 2011, there were more than one million Muslims in Canada; by 2030, this population is expected to triple. Yet, the number of practising Muslim nurses and the number of those who wear the hijab is unknown. I believe this indicates a lack of knowledge about their practice within the Canadian health-care system. Supporting Muslim nurses requires, first and foremost, an understanding of their experiences and the nature of the challenges they face.

Muslims living in Canada are less likely to feel discriminated against than Muslim immigrants living in other western countries. However, they are situated within the global realities of the Syrian refugee crisis, the continued association of Muslims with terrorism and the wide spread of Islamophobia. These realities have begun to unsettle the comfortable position that many Muslims living in Canada treasure.

The results of a 2016 poll of Ontarians’ perceptions of immigrants indicated that only a third of respondents expressed favourable views of Islam and that three-quarters were against the use of resources to support refugees. These findings reflect a shift in attitude from when we Canadians held our heads high, welcoming Syrian refugees while others in the international community refused to sponsor them and, further, cast them as terrorists infiltrating their safe communities.

Similar trends are forming in other parts of Canada. Recently, in my own province of British Columbia, some Muslims have reported acts of discrimination against them. A hijab was pulled off a Muslim woman who was walking down the street in Vancouver.

Daily, as a Muslim nurse wearing a hijab, I navigate through the feelings of being othered, of being singled out as different. I listen — all the while thinking of how to craft a tactful reply — to the subtle and not-so-subtle comments and questions about my clothing, my background and my religion. Still, the experience that affected me the most occurred recently, when a female patient called me ISIS and yelled just outside the nursing hub: “You are a terrorist!” Though I was fully aware of the extensive mental health history of this patient, her words left me in tears.

As a scholar in the making, I turned to the literature to learn how other Muslim nurses have dealt with similar incidents and how they have responded to the sometimes harsh terrain of nurse-patient interactions. When I was unable to locate any relevant studies, I felt further marginalized by a research machinery that has not yet recognized me and other Muslim nurses.

Indeed, learning about and understanding the experiences of Muslim nurses in Canada is an important first step toward creating a supportive and respectful practice environment for them. I believe research that illuminates these experiences is needed to meet the gap in knowledge. This will be my intended focus during my PhD studies and beyond.

Nasrin Saleh, RN, MPH, is a PhD student in the University of Victoria school of nursing and works on a geriatric psychiatry unit.