Wearing Hijab as an NHS Nurse

In the name of Allah most gracious most merciful

Disclaimer: I am not a scholar, nor expert in the holy Quran. Everything I will say in this blog is of my personal views, experience and opinion. I pray and hope that people (muslim/non-muslim) will find understanding and enlightenment from this blog. 

Back story: My whole immediate family converted to islam when I was 6, but I only started taking islam seriously two years ago. I took my shahada (again) with the intention of practicing my religion and spirituality better. To non-muslims reading this, shahada is like an oath we swear in front of Allah swt (God) that there is no other God but Allah swt and the last prophet is prophet Mohammed pbuh (peace be upon him).

Aside from praying 5x a day, wearing hijab (headscarf/covering/or sometimes a term referring to modesty in clothes, words and ways) was probably one of the most challenging part for me as a muslim. To those who knew me before I wore it, it was probably quite a shock for them to see my transition.

I started wearing hijab in February of this year (and that is another story for another blog). What I am going to talk about here is my experience wearing it at work. Although I had worn it outside for some time, I had internal struggles wearing it at work because I was afraid of being ostracized.

After the “9/11”, it was normal for me to hear my friends/colleagues back in my home country to find amusement in calling me a terrorist or an ISIS member. Although I knew they were just joking and I never took this seriously, it left a significant mark in my mind that being open about my religion was not a good idea. I would rather keep it to myself. It is between me and God.

Living in England, I had seen it myself. Yes. If you are blind to it, muslims experience a lot of discrimination from people around them. Look at the stats! Forty five percent of reported hate crimes was against muslims, which is funny because there is only 4.5% of us in the whole UK population. Wouldn’t you say that’s a bit disproportionate?

Before I wore hijab, it almost felt like I was a spy, as people did not identify me as a muslim due to how I used to dress. I heard a lot of them say things about muslims behind their backs.

Things I heard from non-muslims about muslims behind their backs…

There was one time I was wheeling a patient down to Xray when I saw a muslim friend of mine. I greeted him “Asalamualaykum (peace be with you!)” and he greeted me back with “Wa alaykum musalaam (peace be with you too)” The patient asked me what language it was and from what religion. I answered him to say it is arabic and is an islamic greeting. He then asked me “Has that anything to do with terrorism?” I blinked at him and paused. I breathed deeply because I could feel my heart thumping. Yes, I was triggered! If I was not thinking well, I would have talked back and got defensive. But God helped me, I simply said, no it’s not and explained that the greeting meant “peace be with you.” I was silent. Before I opened my mouth again, the gentleman probably had realised what he said and apologised. I accepted his apologies by saying “That’s ok.

Another time was when I was an acting nurse in charge in one ward and there was a challenging muslim family. I did not know how my colleagues’ conversation went from talking about the family’s concerns to talking about halal food. I was not paying attention whilst I was busy typing my notes for the evening hand over until I heard the ward clerk said,

Eeeeeehh.. (sounds disgusted) I wouldn’t even eat halal.”

My eyes widened whilst I was typing (yes… you guessed it.. I was triggered again and I wish I had heard everything they were talking about before this, because I swear, I was ready to go to war if it wasn’t nice) LOL!! My ears were ringing when I heard it. I turned to her and asked her what she understands about halal (of course in a nice professional way).

She said “I don’t know. They do something to the animals. They do not kill them properly and say random things.

I explained to her that halal means permissible and halal meats mean that they are ethically sourced. The lovely pharmacist joined the discussion and agreed with me and said “It is kinder that way isn’t it?” The ward clerk turned away from me and started typing her notes and said, “I still don’t buy it.” In that instance, I understood that this is a close-minded person and I should stop engaging with her. Why would I waste my time? I had 20 more patients to review before I hand them over to the next shift!

There are MANY more! Like that time I opened up to my english friend about wanting to practice my religion more. This friend asked me to try the hijab in front of them and when I did, the reaction was “oh god…

The other time was when I was eating in this cafe in Cambridge. The owner greeted 2 muslim girls who were renting her flat upstairs. She told us that the girls are taking political science and probably are planning to be future politicians.

The owner said…

Well this is the problem you see, they might run the country in the future and I don’t like that idea.

She talked about how she is against “their ways.” She finds it weird that they do not want sharing the flat with men, and again, she is against ‘halal‘. I listened to her going on about the ladies whilst she drink her can of alcoholic drink (don’t ask me what drink it was, I can’t remember- LOL!). She asked me my views (sounding patronising as she probably thought a small filipina girl like me would not have an opinion). I explained to her as she requested (while internally- I was fuming). She asked me how I know these things (with a tone of I don’t really buy what you’re telling me). She dropped her jaw when I told her I am a muslim.

Looking back, I cringe at the fact that I just accepted things like that. Sometimes even telling people that I am not too religious so that they can accept me openly and stop judging me. I did not say anything further to defend my people and this religion. Maybe because I did not feel worthy enough. But regrets tell us a few things: what we value the most, and what to do next time to be more in line with what we value. This time, I realised that I value making a difference to how others view others (especially towards my people, my profession and my religion). I realised how much love I have for God, His people and my purpose. But am I worthy defending these myself? I did not think so at that time. (yeah.. I know.. perfectionist mindset. LOL!)

Today is the day…

I remember waking up very early to prepare my breakfast. It was the first day of Ramadhan; and though I have prepared myself by fasting a few days before, I was very nervous and felt a little sick. I practiced last night, but I could not find the right comfortable hijab that day. I decided to wear a turtle neck inner lining and wrapped my headscarf like a turban. I was nervous as to what infection control nurses would tell me, but I know there is a policy that if you are doing things for religious reasons, that they cannot reprimand you for that. It’s like wearing a wedding ring – it is discouraged to wear rings for infection control reasons – but a wedding ring is an exception.

I rolled up my long sleeves above my elbow because you should be bare below the elbow, and this is for infection control reasons too. We go to one patient to the other and need to wash our hands. Whatever bacteria goes to your shirt, can be passed on to the next, and our hands to elbows are the most exposed parts when rendering personal care.

I reminded myself of why I want to cover my hair

I finished my prayer that morning with good intentions and that Allah swt may make it easy for me.

When I first joined the NHS, I had always concealed my religion for fear of discrimination. I had a fear that it would be much more difficult to get a higher position for a woman belonging in a minority ethnic group whose religion is the most hated in the country; especially in a place like Cambridge where most people belong to white middle to upper class society.

I decided I am not going to live in that fear anymore.

To make it this far, I had to conceal some of me, pretend to have different morals and values than what my inner moral compass have told me – and that destroyed me internally. I realised I had been a lost sheep.

I realised that this needs to change. I should have more faith in Allah than anyone else. I am wearing this so people can identify me as a muslim- a believer. Not a lot of them know that the reason why I am compassionate, kind, loving, strong, resilient nurse that I am now is because my deepest values root from my religion – islam.

The next time my colleagues, patients, and other people I encounter, see a hijabi, my hope is that they are reminded of my smile, my kindness, my compassion towards them, and that we are capable enough to deliver the best service to others. We are not what the mainstream media portray we are.

With these in mind, I am reminded to be more mindful of my words and actions towards the people around me. Because I am part of the Ummah (muslim community), a negative impression of me would be a negative impression of the society I represent.

First time at work

I have mentioned this to my colleagues before this day but I remember walking in the office feeling so concerned – of what people would say, feel and think of me. Would they even recognise me in the wards?

But I went to the office with my biggest smile and confidence. I remember the prophet’s words in my mind. Smile it is sunnah. There is a reason why it is recommended by the prophet.

The ladies in my team all greeted me back with smile and enthusiasm and asked me to turn around so they could see what it looks like at the back. They all loved it and was very supportive of me wearing it! I didn’t expect that! I felt so light!

Walking through the corridors of the hospital, I made a little dua- please Allah make it easy for me. When the elevator opened – a doctor who I never knew and met before greeted me “Asalamualaykum sister!” I prayed, Ya Raab, thank you for sending people my way to deliver your answers to me. I felt so guided!

Wearing the hijab, plus wearing masks, I wondered if people would even recognise me, but to my surprise, I hear people call my name even when I have my back turned towards them. There was a lot of them curious and I saw some quizical look, but most of them were so delighted with a mix of surprise to see me wearing it. Some of my catholic filipino friends pulling my leg saying I have turned into “Mama Mary.” which I felt honoured to hear because Maryam or Mary (may Allah be pleased with her) is the best of all women. No its not Kim Kardashian! Astagfirullah! LOL!

Feedbacks

I have been wearing hijab for 8 months now and alongside that, living with a purpose of educating and enlightening everyone I encounter about the beauty of Islam. In my line of work as a palliative care nurse, spirituality plays a major role in most cases. The knowledge about different religions is definitely an asset. I have felt more confident nowadays to talk about my spirituality to my colleagues and share to my patients when they are curious.

There were times when I felt dismissed in my workplace talking about faith in God, or even just mentioning asking for His guidance with my decisions at work; understandably, not everyone follows religion, but that doesn’t mean people can dismiss you or invalidate what you believe in. We have every right to talk about what’s important to us and I have definitely learned to stand up and hold my ground against these comments and criticisms. I know my right and I know I am doing everything I can to do my job with the help of God. The prophet said to believe in Allah swt AND tie your camel. Me believing in the higher power has nothing to do with their perceived work productivity. I am still putting in the same effort of work with the faith that God is by my side. In fact, my spirituality allowed me to become a better worker because I see my job as an everyday ibadah (service and worship).

After a few months of having lived with intentions as above mentioned, I got very nice feedbacks from my colleagues and friends. Some of them said that they are more curious of women wearing hijabs. One of them even asked me what was that phrase they say to greet each other (I taught them Salaam meaning peace be with you). Some of them said that they feel more receptive and positive about muslims and they get to understand islam better.

Here are two of my managers’ feedback about my spirituality…

This is from my appraisal done October 2022
Here’s my manager’s reply to my resignation letter.

Conclusion

I hope this blog gave you a better insight and understanding; and if you are a muslim woman having the same dilemma, remember, every effort is appreciated by Allah swt as long as you have good intentions! May Allah make it easy for all of us!

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