Updated: Jul 25
Dr. Nahla is an aspiring psychiatrist beginning her residency this year. She is passionate about mental health and has recently started using social media platforms to share her experiences as a Muslim woman in medicine. From topics such as navigating clinical exams while wearing a hijab to creating conversations around mental health, Nahla has been using her platforms to educate and create an accepting environment for her viewers.
By: Dina Babiker
Dr. Nahla comes from a big family of ten, with Syrian origins based in Mississauga, Ontario. She completed her undergraduate Health Sciences degree at Western University and went on to attend medical school at the University of Queensland and completed her intern year in Australia. She is now back in Canada, aspiring to complete her psychiatry residency.
Figure 1: Dr. Nahla
I began by asking Dr. Nahla a very common question: “when did you decide to pursue medicine?” She gave me a very interesting answer as she recalled, “I don’t know if it was as much a decision as it was a running dialogue in my brain all the time — I always felt inclined towards health and science, it started off in high school. I also fell in love with psychology and sociology.” She continued on to say, “I didn’t realize it would really influence me and I would basically marry the two when I decided to do psychiatry.” Initially, Dr. Nahla was set on geriatrics and she described finding psychiatry like “finding a spark.” She expressed how she loved the challenges of psychiatry, as a specialty which came to her naturally, and how it made her thrive.
I first came across Dr. Nahla through her videos on how to wear a hijab during the OSCE exam. She described how intimidating it was to put herself out there and become the person she would have liked to have helped her when she was preparing for her own exam. Her page expanded to include topics such as the importance of mental health and anecdotes from her own experiences. I decided to ask her about how we can destigmatize mental health within our communities. Fortunately, Dr. Nahla admitted that we are improving with regards to mental health. She emphasized the importance of talking about the matter, and how more content about mental health will help normalise people’s experiences and encourage more support.
We proceeded to discuss a more sensitive topic regarding one of her TikTok videos. On this video, a comment was made by a user on how she chose to wear the turban — a style of hijab — during her OSCE exam. The user decided to discuss the “rightness” of her hijab. I asked her about how she deals with these inappropriate comments and she responded, “I knew going into it that it is a brutal platform. I knew it was a place that is not going to be entirely safe for me but I wanted to create a platform for other people to feel safe.”
She stated that it is important for women to wear a hijab however they feel comfortable, and that it is unfortunate that we hold hijabis to unreasonable and unattainable standards. Dr. Nahla chose to remove these comments from her page to ensure that other young women are not negatively impacted as she stressed the importance of her page being a safe space.
As our conversation continued, I asked Dr. Nahla about why there seems to be a lack of representation of Muslim women within medicine. She mentioned how there is a relatively good amount of older Muslim women in medicine in Canada; however, she acknowledged that there seems to be a lack of younger Muslim women in medicine. She highlighted the importance of having a good support system and an encouraging family that pushes you to succeed. Moreover, she speculated how the lack of representation could cause internalized fears and misconceptions about a career in healthcare.
We discussed an experience she went through where she met a friend of her mother’s, who asked her age and then commented on how she was not married yet. The complete disregard of her accomplishments as a recent graduate of medical school highlighted the societal pressure on women that can discourage them from pursuing careers within healthcare. As we continued to converse, Dr. Nahla explained how it was important for her to be a representation for what women can do: “If you have an example, it’s so much more attainable. It’s so much more real in your head.”
During our interview, Dr. Nahla talked about the significance of being a doctor that does not just see the physiological aspects of health, but one that also takes into account the social determinants of health. She described wanting to be the kind of doctor who understands the challenges minorities face when they try to navigate a system that does not take into account their unique issues. She elaborated, “I felt inclined to pursue that aspect of medicine because I thought I wanted to be that kind of doctor.”
We delved into discussing the struggles of being a visible minority attending medical school. Dr. Nahla described her time as a medical student as a “time of reflection, introspection and hardships.” She discussed some of the unique challenges she had to face including racism, islamophobia and backward thinking that she had to learn to navigate. She went on to say, “there is a particular discomfort with being a hijabi in hospitals in Australia. It never goes away because you are always being reminded of it when you do end up going back to the hospital.”
Her experiences include constantly being asked about her hijab and if she is Muslim or a convert until she reached a point of desensitization. These questions and comments on her spiritual beliefs is something that her colleagues who do not visibly belong to a certain faith would not have to deal with. Unfortunately, Dr. Nahla’s experience is not unique. A recent article published by the Huffington Post discusses the islamophobia Muslim doctors in the UK face. It states that “80% of the Muslim medics surveyed by HuffPost UK revealed they had experienced Islamophobia or racism from patients in the NHS” .
A visibly Muslim doctor recalled being told: “Your religion is about killing people and mine is about saving lives” when talking to a patient’s family . Other doctors described the phrases “terrorist,” “go back to your country,” and other islamophobic slurs being thrown at them on a regular basis.
Dr. Nahla described the way “patients, the staff, and the community itself can bother you in ways you didn’t even know they could.” She explained how she constantly gets asked where she’s from, and how when she answers “Canada,” it is never enough.
On the other hand, Dr. Nahla, recalled a positive experience where her senior doctor shut down rude comments made by a patient. She talked about how it felt like she was not alone and someone had her back. Unfortunately, these experiences have been far and in between. It is important to acknowledge every human being is deserving of respect regardless of their faith, color, or appearance, and it’s also important for people in positions of power to help enforce that mutual respect and change actually happen through action.
Lastly, a message Dr. Nahla has for Muslim women and other visible minorities hoping to pursue a career in healthcare, is: “be okay with rejection. It’s not going to come easily. We face a lot of challenges and rejection because of who we are. You have to be incredibly resilient and handle the fact that you might not be accepted right away in hospitals. You might also not get positions because of systemic racism.”
She concluded with how “the resilience that you will build over time will stay with you, although the odds are not in our favour, and that’s okay. That’s not a reflection of your value; you are inherently deserving of every opportunity. Do not give up.”
It has been a pleasure interviewing Dr. Nahla, and you can find her on her Instagram page @imdoctornahla and her TikTok page @doctornahla.
Jasmine Kokkat, Rhea Verma
Day A. [Internet] Lancashire (UK): HuffPost; c2020. Exclusive: muslim medics called ‘terrorists’ and told ‘go back to your country’ – by patients; 2020 Sep 12 [cited 2020 Sep 16]. Available: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/islamophobia-nhs-patients-muslims-religion-abuse-discrimination_uk_5f567984c5b62b3add4442b6