Change the experience: a Muslim medical student’s story


I watched the young woman across from me wrap the soft stretch of fabric around her face. She folded a part of it that hung close to her ears and loosened it slightly, put her fingers slowly under the fabric and experimented with how much room there was. Would a stethoscope earpiece fit through each side easily? She unwrapped it again. Repeated the same finger test.

She had chosen a light pink color, in part because pink was her favorite color but also because she wanted something that would make her first patient, even though they were an actor, feel comfortable with her. The thought of introducing herself to her first patient was intimidating for the obvious reason: It would be the first time she’d take on this role as a student doctor.

And there would be nothing worse than a patient feeling uncomfortable with her there for her appearance.

In medical school, I am building my professional persona, and that means figuring out how to walk these lines is also part of developing myself into a practicing Muslim in America while learning how to serve everyone. So my presentation to my first patient was incredibly important. I had to prove that I could look different than them but still be just as approachable as any other student doctor.

I recall how I began the physical exam with the lung exam, so that I could stand behind the patient and they would not see me fumble to stick my stethoscope in my ears under my hijab. I was able to explain to them what I would be doing without it seeming unusual the few seconds longer it took me to begin their exam.

Recently, I was invited to join my classmates at a “business cocktail” reception commemorating the end of our first semester in medical school. The challenge of finding a “hijabi-friendly” outfit began. Somehow, this small problem seemed to be a bigger metaphor to everything that meant being a hijab-wearing Muslim American. Merging two cultures together and being comfortable and confident in that is a challenge. Somehow, each time I think I have mastered it, I am reminded of another “issue” that reminds me that I haven’t.

At the reception, a classmate jokingly wondered how to make themselves “less approachable,” and I (again, jokingly) suggested wearing a hijab. We all laughed, but that led to more discussion about it. Later, as I shared this story with another classmate, he laughed but became more serious as he asked, “That comes from a place of truth though, doesn’t it?”

The laughter quieted down as I thought to that deep place of truth that that came from, that I had grown used to taking the collection of stereotypes and burying them deep in a bottle within me, taking them out in the form of comedic comments. How else could you become more approachable and encourage others to learn about you and inquire about what made you different? And I do not believe that is something solely belonging to Muslims. The same could be said for dealing with racial tensions, cultural tensions, and other stereotypes.

I think back to a medical school interview during which I was asked about what I would do if someone refused to allow me to care for them because of my head scarf.

I think back to deciding whether or not to disclose information about my life as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in my medical school essay that asked me to write about being an “underrepresented student.” Family friends recommended against it. I discussed this dilemma with my pre-med adviser, who kindly apologized for his privilege, for realizing that he did not have an answer for something as he never had to face a question like this.

I did end up writing about my hijab in my essay, and when I met with one of the admissions reps before the start of the academic year, he surprised me by saying, “I won’t forget what you wrote about your hijab and how proud and confident you are about it.”

I think of how there were some who told my parents how surprised they were that I was accepted “even with a hijab on.” And I realize that there is so much more to a person than what they wear, the color of their skin, how many times a day they pray, or where they call home. We are not unique for there are many people like us, but it is how we choose to see how journeys that make us unique.

So those who compliment my hijab-wrapping skills (thanks, I worked hard on those!), my hijabi-friendly business cocktail outfit, the questions about how I wear it and why I wear it and why people misunderstand it, I thank you. To the friend who told me that I proved that a woman could be classy without being too revealing, I appreciate you. To those who point out my smile before pointing out my hijab, you’re incredible.

You should know that the challenge to be confident as a hijabi in situations where most are not is not an indication of poor self-esteem but rather a result of some kind of tiredness of trying to figure out how to make something more “hijabi-friendly.” I want you to know that I appreciate our conversations, connections, and mutual respect for one another, particularly when you strive to learn more about it.

Many seem to think that hijab-wearing Muslim women are doing they are doing despite their hijab. Well, I’m proposing a change to that narrative: I do everything with my hijab, because of my hijab, and experience so much as a result of my hijab, not despite it. Other women may or may not share the same sentiments, so I am not speaking on behalf of all Muslim women in medicine.

I hope that whatever we are doing and whoever we are, we do it because of our background and not despite it.

Manar Mohammad is a medical student.

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