Feb. 8, 2023

Master's student sheds light on Islamophobia faced by Muslim nurses in Canada

Zahra Upal shares her own experiences as a hijab-wearing registered nurse and how it shaped her research focus
Zahra Upal, nursing instructor and Master of Nursing student, UCalgary Nursing
Zahra Upal, nursing instructor and Master of Nursing student, UCalgary Nursing

Zahra Upal is a nursing instructor and Master of Nursing student at the University of Calgary. Her experiences as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman led her to investigate incidents of Islamophobia faced by Muslim nurses in Canada. Below, she details some of those experiences.

As I write this piece, it is Feb. 1, which is also known as World Hijab Day, a day that celebrates the true dignity, independence and freedom of women. I am a registered nurse and proud member of the Muslim community. I began my journey in nursing in 2010 and have worked in various capacities throughout my career, including with the Indigenous community, performing home visits with newborns and their mothers, and teaching nursing students for the past five years as a nursing instructor at the University of Calgary.

Throughout this time, I have met many people who supported and encouraged my decision to wear the hijab but, unfortunately, I have also experienced Islamophobia in various forms, mainly related to my hijab.

When I was a nursing student, there were various times where my hijab was pointed out as problematic to my clinical placement. During one instance, management was unhappy with my head covering and I was told to either remove it or leave the hospital unit. Leaving the unit to go home and change would have meant losing the clinical day and having to make up those hours later. As the mother of two young children, one of whom was only 13 months old at the time, extra time is something I simply did not have. Therefore, my only choice was to remove my head covering and walk around for the rest of the day with my head uncovered. It was a humiliating experience that made me feel exposed and ashamed. It is a feeling that I have not forgotten to this day.

Other forms of Islamophobia have been covert and less obvious. During one instance as a nursing student, a nurse informed me that my hijab may be offensive to home-visiting patients and that they would have to be told beforehand that I was planning to visit. If these patients did not want me in their homes, I was told that I would not be able to do the home visit.

Due to this, I questioned whether I would ever be able to visit clients in their homes, which, as I later found out in my nursing practice, was not an issue that my patients ever raised. Not only did I perform hundreds of home visits, but my nursing managers supported my ability to do so. After I became a registered nurse, my family and friends were concerned for my safety when I was conducting home visits with strangers while wearing my hijab. Although my supervisors and fellow nurses were very supportive, the danger of being alone in a home with strangers who may have a negative experience with my faith was frightening at times.

As a proud citizen of Canada, these experiences were deeply painful and have profoundly impacted the type of nurse I am today and the type of nursing I choose to do. I avoided hospital nursing after graduating from nursing school, as so many hospital units had an issue with my hijab.

At many points in my journey, I considered leaving the profession altogether due to the discrimination I faced. These experiences have also affected how I see the world and my relationships with those around me: I have questioned my identity as a nurse in Canada and felt I was somehow different than other nurses who do not wear the hijab or are not Muslim.

It was not until I came to the University of Calgary for my graduate studies that I truly felt like I belonged. In the Faculty of Nursing, I met various people who not only encouraged me to wear my hijab, but to wear it proudly and without apologies. After I spoke with my supervisor, Dr. Jennifer Jackson, PhD, about my experiences as a Muslim woman in the nursing profession, she encouraged me to research this topic further.

My Master of Nursing research focuses on the experiences of Islamophobia for Canadian registered nurses who wear the hijab. In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to connect with other Muslim nurses working in Canada. Unfortunately, they too have shared stories of facing discrimination and Islamophobia.

Previous evidence has demonstrated that Islamophobia in nursing can result in discrimination towards Muslim nurses, poor patient care for Muslim patients and lack of leadership promotions for Muslim nurses.

Through my research, I hope to shed light on the presence of Islamophobia in the nursing profession. For this research, I will conduct one-on-one qualitative interviews with nurses from across Canada and plan to use interpretive phenomenological analysis to analyze the results. This methodology will help me to grasp the essence of the nurses’ experiences of Islamophobia and the meanings they attach to these experiences. I hope to offer suggestions on how we can all work together to address this issue and ensure that the future of the nursing profession is diverse, equitable and united.

As we celebrate Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Week, I am happy and fortunate to be a part of an institution that truly practices these values.

Zahra Upal hopes that, by learning more about the frequency and impact of these workplace occurrences, improved human rights policies and processes within the health-care system will take place.​ For this research, she has been awarded the Alberta Award for the Study of Canadian Human Rights and Multiculturalism, the Canadian Nurses Foundation’s Tylenol Fund to Advance Diversity in Nursing and Health Equity Research for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, as well as the Gayle Hissett Memorial Scholarship from the Alberta Registered Nurses Educational Trust.

For more information on this study, please contact Upal.

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