Earlier this year, over one hundred doctors and religious leaders sent a report to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health and Shoura Council urging officials to establish all-female hospitals throughout the Kingdom.
The report, which is still being considered by Saudi leaders, began in the form of a Facebook group entitled “Pure Hospitals” and was created by a young Saudi woman. She announced the need for hospitals where all employees, including doctors, nurses, administrative staff and cleaners, were women. Her proposition on Facebook gained extraordinary support, attracting over 1,000 members in a week.
However, the young lady’s reasoning for her request was not so that women may receive medical care in a safe and secure environment, but because the “mixing of men and women in hospitals and other places leads to corruption and vices such as exchanging looks, breakdowns in barriers between men and women, and unethical relationships forbidden in Islam.” (Arab News)
In light of the Arab Spring, the social standing of women in Saudi Arabia and the entire region has become increasingly topical. However, I initially struggled to view the request for all-female hospitals as a progressive step. It seemed that women were not gaining their independence, but instead submitting to the distressing gender rules that Saudi Arabia so proudly institutes.
Whilst it is crucial that the medical field transcends issues of race, creed and gender, many of Saudi Arabia’s religious and tribal leaders believe that gender-segregation in hospitals is vital. They even claim that female medical students “suffer from mingling, and by this project could reduce their suffering and prevent women from leaving the medical field.” It is absurd justifications like these that have caused widespread and international criticism towards the demand for all-female hospitals.
As legislation in Saudi Arabia dictates that unrelated men and women are forbidden from mixing in public spaces, awards are currently given to hospitals that best prevent such mixing of the sexes. Whilst male doctors are allowed to treat women, they can only do so in the most severe of cases and strictly with the woman’s ‘male guardian’ present.
The establishment of all-women hospitals would also present practical difficulties. Statistics by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health show that female doctors tend to work in gynecology and as a result, there is likely to be an insufficient number of female surgeons required to run an entire hospital, let alone a hospital in every city.
However, despite these negative interpretations, there are also several strong arguments for why all female hospitals might be a positive development.
Recent reports have shown that women in Saudi Arabia continue to go without medical care, as their guardians forbid them from being treated by male doctors. Shockingly, male permission is still required for women to have even routine surgery.
Last year, MSNBC reported on a woman who tragically “ignored the cancer growing in her breast because she didn’t want to risk a referral to a male doctor.” They also presented another woman who was physically dragged away from a mammogram machine by her husband because the technicians happened to be men.
In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported on cases where women who had just given birth were unable to leave hospital because their male guardians had not picked them up. If no one came to collect them, women would be forced to remain in the hospital until the police decided the best way forward. In other words, the woman’s guardianship transferred from their male relatives, to the police.
If Saudi officials approve the establishment of all-female hospitals, the initial focus will be on creating obstetrical and gynecological centers. An improvement in the latter would have definitely positive consequences as, due to the nature of Saudi society, women rarely undergo cervical screening and as a result rates of cervical cancer currently remain worryingly high.
The establishment of all-female hospitals would undoubtedly provide a sheltered center for women in Saudi Arabia. Mammograms and cervical screenings could be carried out with ease and women could receive medical care without pressure and judgement from their male relatives. While it might seem ridiculous that entirely new hospitals need to be created in order for this to happen, perhaps it is the only way for women to establish their rights without disrupting Saudi Arabia’s existing social realities.