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Life as a Muslim Woman Doctor

Far from the glamorous profession it is often portrayed to be, medicine is a challenging way of life. Two female
doctors speak candidly to Zaytoon Akhalwaya Abed about working at a hospital in Africa, where few other professions would make the same levels of demands, or offer the same opportunities to positively make a difference to the lives of others.

Close your eyes, relax and send your mind to a place where the stale, pungent aromas of the critically ill flow through the veins of the hospital. Let your mind wander through the dull, grey corridors and open spaces of the wards and the hospital grounds. You hear the first yell from a newborn, the last breath of the dying, the exhausted sighs of the doctors and nurses as they make their way to their next rounds. Welcome to South Africa and Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.



Fondly called Bara, it is a specialist referral hospital providing curative services for +3.5 million people from the southern and western parts of Gauteng with referrals from surrounding African countries as well. If all the corridors in the hospital were put into a straight line it will be more than 10 kilometres long. The hospital was entered in the 1997 Guinness Book of Records as the largest hospital in the world.




“It is a hands-on learning experience under the worst of conditions. For anyone else, walking through the hospital can make you feel repulsed as the sights and smells can be intense. As a doctor you learn to use your nose as a tool to diagnose certain illnesses.”


The Casualty, Emergency and Outpatient Unit is the busiest section of the hospital. Here they receive about 350 patients per day, which could easily double over a weekend. Approximately 70 per cent of the cases handled, in the emergency departments, are trauma related. If anyone still thinks that medicine is a glamorous profession, one day in the blood and gore at Bara will quickly dispel that myth. But it is here that Muslim doctors in Johannesburg cut their medical teeth.




Young Intern Finding a Balance
Dr Razinah Mamdoo (25) from Johannesburg is doing her second year internship at Bara and is currently completing her rotation in family medicine. Coming from a family of doctors, she was exposed to medicine from a young age and lists her father as her major source of inspiration: “I have always admired my father, he loves his job and I went with him as a child and watched him work. I decided at a young age that medicine was my calling but as I grew up I thought I should explore other avenues. I started studying chemical engineering and for the first week I was utterly miserable. I knew my calling was medicine and decided to embrace my chosen path.”




Razinah says of working at Bara: “You are exposed to everything. It is a hands-on learning experience under the worst of conditions. For anyone else, walking through the hospital can make you feel repulsed as the sights and smells can be intense. As a doctor you learn to use your nose as a tool to diagnose certain illnesses.


“I remember when I had to certify my first death. It was difficult but I found that our deen provides us comfort in death so I read the dua ‘to Allah do we belong and to Him will we return.’ Immediately I felt calm, that life and death are not in our hands. I find that my Iman allows me to cope and to accept Allah’s will.”

According to Razinah, Muslimah doctors have an advantage as they are given a lot of respect and have the opportunity to practise their deen. At Bara there is a strong Islamic presence and Muslim organisations such as the Muslim Students Association provide a good support structure for Muslim students, interns and doctors. She finds that wearing the hijab only strengthens and uplifts the status of a Muslim woman.

“My purpose is to help people as best as I can. I love what I do and enjoy the challenges that each day brings. The reward for me and most doctors at the end of the day is a grateful smile and the hope that they will remember you.”

Razinah’s message to women is to try and create a good, healthy balance in life without segregating one from the other. For Razinah, Islam is all about incorporating your personality, goals, morals and values to strike a balance in life.

Specialisation: Multi-tasking and Juggling
Dr Ayesha Wadee graduated with her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBCH) at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1998. She married her husband while still finding her feet in her new profession.




“I grew up in a very conservative family. Most women in our family were forced to leave school by grade 9 to get married and start a life as a mother and homemaker. That a woman could have both a career and marriage was taboo. My parents asked me to choose a career where I could be self sufficient and not dependent on anyone like a boss. In my heart I knew medicine was my life’s calling after visiting a hospital while still in high school and spending time with doctors. My father supported my decision to complete my schooling and further my education.”




Ayesha began specialising in internal medicine, but the road to completing her specialisation was interrupted with giving birth to and meeting the needs of her two young children. “Not long after we were married we went through a very rough financial period making me the sole breadwinner.  I worked as a medical officer to guarantee a stable income.

“After my husband found work I began my specialising again until my second child was born. I resigned for a few months to work in a private practice but soon returned to Bara. The nights and overtime took a toll on my family life. The children were babies so it did not impact them that hard but as they grew, their needs grew with them. Last year I made a decision to prioritise my family and stopped night work. I am on a roster basis on weekends and emergencies.”




Currently, Ayesha is super specialising in rheumatology. A specialty which usually takes two years to complete will take Ayesha longer as she has to balance family life and a career. Fortunately, the hospitals allow doctors with family commitments time to complete their studies.

“Islam and my faith in Allah, alhamdulillah, mapped out my life. There are days when it is a challenge to find time to fit salah in, but this is essential even when it seems almost impossible. In Ramadhan you carry a date and water with you while working; you break your fast and try and perform your salah.”

Like Razinah, Ayesha has found that there is a mutual respect when you are in hijab, or even niqab, between the patients and colleagues. She says that there is a silent understanding amongst the Muslim doctors that if a female Muslim doctor is uncomfortable treating a male patient, she will refer the patient to a male Muslim doctor and vice versa. The Muslim medical staff tries its best to accommodate each other and maintain an Islamic atmosphere.

“I feel sad for our Muslim women here who fight their way into Medical School only to leave everything for marriage. There is nothing wrong with women having a career as long as we remember that we are Muslims and our allegiance is to Allah first. We are women and we can try and balance our life with passion, nurturing life as it unfolds in front of us. Our lives are in Allah’s hands.”

Zaytoon Akhalwaya Abed (32) is the daughter of an anti-apartheid activist and journalist. Like her father, she has embraced writing as her passion, particularly those themes that focus on uplifting Muslim women and children. She lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children.





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