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Feminist Doctors: A Duty, Not A Choice

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Zaitoon talks about a case of harassment of a female doctor at the hands of her male colleagues, and the prevalent culture of patriarchy in the medical fraternity.

“The first task of the doctor is … political: the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government,” – Michel Foucault.

We enter medical school and are trained rigorously. We are trained in the art of rote memorization, of cramming enormous amounts of information in the least time possible, of absorbing entire books which literally give a loud “thud!” as they are put on a table. Thus, we become experts – in memory and recall – as we graduate what should be called “military schools” for the brain.

Where, however, does our humanity go? One would expect empathy, sensitivity and civility to be natural parts of training to be a doctor. Ironically though, our MBBS curriculum has no place for it. The closest semblance of it we receive is in our third-year course on Behavioural Sciences, which is by and large treated as a minor and casual subject at best. We also go through two weeks of clinical rotation in psychiatry in our 4th and 5th years, but the only instruction we receive in these is on how to pass our exams.

Meanwhile, in the backdrop, we know that Pakistan is going through an important change. The women of Pakistan are well on their way to wresting freedom from patriarchy, and achieving justice against harassment, abuse and rape. The forces of Aurat March refuse to back down, as the movement expands to call out misogynist and authoritative men from every walk of life for their privilege, impunity and assumed entitlement. There is still a long fight to be fought, however. For instance, while the recent Motorway rape incident sparked a huge public outrage against rapists and rape culture, on one hand, it ironically also led to a spike in abuse targeted towards vocal women, on the other.

A similar episode of male entitlement seeking to quash women’s voice and agency is being played out in the medical community (or, as it is more aptly called, “fraternity”) right now.

A recent tweet by a doctor with Twitter name Maryam (@Maryamful) showed the picture of a poster from one of the protests held against the Motorway incident. What followed was a barrage of abuse against her in reaction. Among the critics, a fellow doctor particularly stood out with his comments. Maryam, acting like a brave woman of 2020, exposed the doctor and reported him for his “sexually violent remarks”, as a result of which, an investigation was launched by the Punjab Health Department.

In response, Dr. Salman Haseeb (SIMS), president of the Punjab chapter of Young Doctors’ Association (YDA), ran to the aid of his abusive male doctor buddy. He held press conferences calling for “justice” to be delivered to his brother-in-arms, and challenged Maryam to have him fired as well.

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While I write this, Maryam is facing a full-fledged targeted harassment campaign organised by these male doctors for daring to speak out against one of them. Here are two tweets from YDA Punjab president Dr. Salman Haseeb.

 

While jumping to take a stand for one of his men, the president of YDA Punjab conveniently forgot that the woman receiving the abuse also belongs to the medical fraternity.

This last fact – that men, with such a belittling attitude toward women, are also responsible for treating female patients – is alarming to the extreme. In the course of our MBBS studies, our teachers teach us to never betray our patients’ trust. The relationship between a doctor and a patient has to be privileged since patients trust their doctors with information that they wouldn’t even share with their spouses. People, women and men alike, tend to trust their doctors who have graduated from “so and so medical college” and hired at “such and such hospital”. They expect the doctors to uphold their oath to “do no harm”.

But the reality of the matter is far more complicated.

Male medical students, when they enter medical colleges, most often find themselves interacting with the female sex for the first time. They are then expected to be able to treat female patients within the next five years. Men with no gender sensitivity training or sex education from childhood all the way up to the start of their professional careers are trusted with female bodies and female health issues. This entire process is unfair to both the patients and the doctors.

There are numerous incidences of male doctors abusing their physician privileges. A few years ago, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accused a doctor of harassment, which got a lot of attention from the public. This was just one of many cases of a man abusing his physician privileges to gain access to a female patient. In polls I conducted on my own Twitter and Instagram accounts, I received 74 responses from women, 93% of whom said that they would not trust abusive men to be their doctors.

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The culture of patriarchy is embedded far too deeply in different stages of the medical profession. When teachers enter lecture halls and focus more on the female students’ clothes than their teaching, when teachers dismiss female students with a “yeh rishtay karwane ayi haiN”, when teachers discourage hard-working female students with “aap ne kaunsa kaam karna hai MBBS ke baad”, what are the male students supposed to learn?

This belittling attitude,and the existence of “bro clubs” are not just limited to doctors. It’s a reflection of the largely unchallenged mindset among the majority of Pakistani men and the society: that men are hunters, and women are open prey.

The surge in the popularity of Aurat March in recent years is set on challenging this mindset and changing the overbearing patriarchal structure of our society. Unfortunately, feminists are still largely ignored and ridiculed in medical colleges, which in itself is a huge factor that plays into the nurturing of misogynist doctors. One cannot expect doctors who do not believe in the political, economical, personal, and social equality of the sexes to provide quality treatment to female patients. Every person belonging to any creed, religion, socioeconomic class or sex is a potential patient of ours. It does not suit a doctor to not stand for basic human rights. It does not suit a doctor to scoff at feminism. It does not suit a doctor to view women as lesser beings.

It’s noteworthy that just until just a few years ago, male doctors abusing women on the internet were passed off casually, but this time, it has brought about terminations and press conferences. This is clear evidence of feminism winning ground.

It is about time that the medical fraternity also considered some important questions. Shouldn’t young people be given gender sensitivity training? Shouldn’t male students be taught to respect their female colleagues and patients? Shouldn’t men who are entrusted with the treatment of female bodies be taught to not view them as sexual objects? Shouldn’t men be held to higher standards of conduct? Shouldn’t women be safe around men?

The entire society – including parents, educators and legislators – can benefit greatly from these questions, not just doctors.

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Naya Daur