Mohammed Wajihuddin | November 10, 2012, Times Crest

OUT OF BOUNDS: Conservative elements in the community feel the profession is unfit for Muslim women as it might entail close proximity to male patients

Orthodoxy has kept Muslim women from taking up nursing as a career. One man’s campaign in a sleepy Maharashtra town might change that.

In her white nurse’s uniform, Sumaiyya Imam Hussain takes a bus everyday from her college to a hospital. There, under the guidance of trained gynaecologists, she learns about different stages of pregnancy, childbirth, how to care for newborn babies and other facets of nursing. “It is a new life for me, ” says Hussain.

For over a dozen Muslim girls training at Shabbir Ahmed Ansari Nursing College in Miraj, a sleepy town in Maharashtra, it has taken a giant leap of faith to even consider nursing as a profession. While there is nothing in Islam that specifically frowns on it as a career, conservative elements in the community feel the profession is unfit for Muslim women as it might entail close proximity to male patients.

It was to change this perception that Shabbir Ahmed, the college’s founder, decided to do the unusual. “Many Muslim educationists with more resources and better connections than me have failed in this field. It was a challenge and remains a challenge even today, ” says Ansari, who is also founder-president of the All-India Muslim OBC Organization.

As a champion of reservation for Muslim OBCs, Ansari has toured the country’s length and breadth, especially Muslim hamlets and pockets. He knows the socio-economic situation of his community like the back of his hand. “I have seen poor Muslim women slogging in bidi making units and working as maid servants. I always wondered why there were no Muslim female nurses, ” says Ansari.

A look at the background of some of the students at this nursing college proves Ansari’s point. Sumaiyaa Imam Hussain is the daughter of an unlettered tailor from Kannur in Kerala. Maryam Shamsuddin Shaikh from Miraj is the first child in her family to study beyond Class VII.

“We have a joint family and my uncle was against my decision to join this course, ” says Shaikh. “But I was adamant so my father convinced my uncle to let me have my way. ”

Shama Jalaluddin Khatib’s father works in a power loom factory in Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra. When she decided to take the nursing course, a woman in the neighbourhood tried to stop her. “You will have to not only touch strange male patients but also watch a lot of births. Teri ankhon ki haya khatm ho jayegi (You will lose all sense of shame), ” her neighbour warned. Undeterred, Khatib went ahead with her plan.

Many have tried to bring Muslim girls into nursing but failed. Pune-based educationist P A Inamdar who runs a dozen educational institutions, including a dental college, tried to establish a nursing college a few years ago. “I placed advertisements and held meetings but never got the mandatory quota of 20 students. I gave up, ” says Inamdar. How valid is the argument that a Muslim woman should not touch a male stranger, even if it is a patient? And does Islam stop women from joining the nursing profession ? Islamic scholar Zeenat Shaukat Ali says the religion has nothing to do with such beliefs. “Such ideas have many followers because of the patriarchal culture that wants to keep women subservient, ” he says. Ali points out that many women worked as nurses during battles the Prophet participated in. “When a nurse touches a patient it is to bring him/her relief, ” she says.

Ansari could not have pulled off this effort without the help of Naseem Mahat, his colleague and chairperson of the trust which runs the college. Mahat personally visited many Muslim homes and convinced parents to let their daughters train as nurses. “I told them that even if their daughters didn’t work at hospitals, their training could come in handy in their villages and neighbourhoods. In villages there is an acute crunch of trained midwives, ” says Mahat who, as a warden, keeps a protective eye on the girls at the hostel.

At the hostel, while they are encouraged to offer namaz and read scriptures, the girls don’t have the luxury of watching television. “While these girls learn nursing, they must be focused and committed to their works, ” explains Mahat.