University is a daunting time for most students, but for Muslim nursing and midwifery students a lack of cultural and religious awareness can make going out on clinical practice even more nerve-wracking.
Simple things like NSW Health's 'bare below the elbow' rule - which mandates health practitioners roll their sleeves up above their elbows when treating patients for hygiene reasons - and having to intimately care for members of the opposite gender can, in some cases, be difficult for Islamic students to navigate.
"Over the past few years, probably the past decade or so, we've seen an increase in the number of Muslim students who were entering nursing and midwifery compared to previous years," Rakime Elmir, a lecturer in nursing and midwifery, told SBS News.
But when Western Sydney University noticed that many Islamic nursing students were dropping out before the end of their degree, they decided to do something about it. In consultation with community leaders and Muslim students, the university's School of Nursing and Midwifery developed a suite of resources addressing common concerns and last week released Australia's first-ever branded clinical hijab, available as part of the university's nursing uniform.
"Many students wanted to wear a skirt as opposed to the mandatory pants because in Islamic beliefs practice it's important to be [in] modest clothing ... the other concern was around women and girls not willing to roll their sleeves up in the clinical practice unit at University and also while on clinical placement," Dr Elmir explained.
"The other issue was around caring for the opposite gender ... we really needed to address that.
"We had one near miss incident where a student left a male patient in the shower and didn't attend to them and the patient collapsed." A Muslim woman herself, Dr Elmir said the key was having Islamic community leaders on board to determine what practices were actually forbidden under the Islamic religion.
"There's a bit of misunderstanding and we really wanted to present clear information for students in a sensitive way," she said.
"We needed a community leader who was able to really endorse this information and say practising nursing is actually a good thing in Islam, it's doing a good act, you're not caring for the opposite gender for any other reason."
Director of Academic Programs (Clinical) Sue Willis said the Australian-first initiative "closes a significant gap" in resources for Muslim nursing students. According to Western Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover AO, the university is one of the most culturally diverse higher education institutions in Australia.
"We are very proud to be the first university in Australia to introduce these resources. This reflects our strong commitment to promoting diversity, equity and inclusiveness, and providing a supportive learning and working environment for all," he said.
The university has provided the resources to local health districts, but Dr Elmir said "a little bit more clarification" was needed in the policy set by NSW Health.
In NSW hospitals, hijabs are not part of the official uniform but registered nurses are able to wear their own as long as it is a colour that is compatible with their uniform. But despite the steps forward, according to Dr Elmir more religious and cultural awareness is needed.
"Some of our students still have a negative experience on clinical placement, with some facilities requesting for them to roll up their sleeves as soon as they enter the facility," she said.
"We still have a long way to go in terms of ensuring we are culturally sensitive and culturally aware and trying to adapt some of these practices, where possible, into our clinical environment."
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