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Bay Area Muslim Rns Speak Out On Faith And Patient Care


When Zakiyyah El'Amin, RN, PhD, a Muslim nurse, began her nursing career in a Catholic hospital in Sacramento, Calif., in the 1970s, she did not wear the long flowing head scarf, called “hijab,” seen on many Muslim women. She kept her hair covered in the fashion of African women. People knew she was different, but no one asked her any questions. One day one of her co-workers said, “You know, most people here think you are a Catholic nun from Africa.”

This mistaken identity was not too surprising, considering that nuns are on staff at many Catholic hospitals.

Religion and the workplace

In El'Amin's experience, Muslim nurses today do not impose their religious beliefs on others; they focus on the practical concerns of nursing.

“I know it is not the employer's job to bend over backward for me, and I need to be flexible,” says Rabi'a Mirhadian, RN, who works through the Oakland, Calif.-based Surgical Exchange registry as a med/surg nurse at various San Francisco Bay Area hospitals. “If you take your religion to work with you, it's up to you to make it work.”

For example, although Muslim women must cover their arms, Mirhadian says, “I cover my arms in a way I can push my sleeves up to wash my arms.” As time permits, she sits in her car to pray and goes home to make up any prayers she's missed during the day. She does not want anyone to believe that because she wears hijab, she is looking for special treatment.

“The workplace is changing,” Mirhadian says. "In the United States, there are so many more nurses and doctors coming from Africa, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East … Americans are really good at making all people feel accepted.”

Although the National American Arab Nurses Association already exists for Arab women, Mirhadian saw a need for a faith-based organization for Muslim nurses, since many Arab Americans are not Muslim. The North American Muslim Nurses Association was recently founded to provide a place for Muslim nurses of all ethnic backgrounds to gather, network, and discuss relevant topics.

Meeting all patients' needs

Muslims in the United States encompass many different cultures. The largest group of Muslim people in the United States is of African-American descent, followed by people of South Asian descent, and then people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The remaining numbers of U.S. Muslims are from many other parts of the world. Sometimes this creates confusion.

“Because Muslim people come from such a diversity of cultural backgrounds, sometimes others mistake the personal expression of one's culture as religious belief,” El'Amin says.

However, there are basic tenets of Islam that are important to practice, especially at the time of death and dying. Fifteen years ago, the nurses at one Bay Area hospital allowed El'Amin, two other Muslim nurses, and one Muslim doctor to come in from the outside to care for a Muslim friend who was dying of cancer. El'Amin had worked at this hospital through a registry, so the nurses knew her. When the patient's family members came in, they were reassured by the presence of the Muslim healthcare professionals. At the time of death, the family members were allowed to wash the body modestly in respectful silence, wrap the body in a cotton shroud, and prepare for burial according to their religious traditions.

“If we have patients who have special needs, we try to meet those needs,” El'Amin says. She adds, “What more can we do for one another? When we remember humanity, that we are all part of one another, we will remember to take better care of ourselves and one another — not just Muslims.”

Margaret Cooley is a freelance writer. To comment, e-mail

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