Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stigma Impedes Women Nurses’ Independence

This column originally was published in the Arab News.

ONE of the first events I attended in Saudi Arabia after a five-year absence to study in the United Kingdom was a graduation ceremony for women nursing students at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University Nursing College in Jeddah.

I watched the graduating nurses walking and speaking with confidence during the ceremonies as they chanted, “I am a nurse and I am proud of it.”

Their English was fluent and they spoke of serving their country with “dignity, honor and self-esteem.”
Seated with the graduating nurses was Princess Hessa bint Trad Al-Shaalan, King Abdullah’s wife, who handed each nurse her certificate and treated them all like a proud mother.

Princess Hessa’s presence at the graduation ceremony was significant as it signaled the king’s continued support to empower women to obtain an education and find employment.

Yet thousands of Saudi women earning university degrees in the Kingdom or returning home after obtaining certificates from foreign universities face a tight job market. However, nursing as a woman’s occupation remains a relatively open field that has been largely ignored by Saudis because of the stigma attached to female nurses working in a mixed environment and caring male patients in a manner considered too familiar.

Judging from the attitudes I witnessed at the graduation ceremony, Saudi women’s attitudes are changing. Saudi society in general? Not so much.

Saudi conservatives have taken a hard line against women working in nursing because they work under the supervision of men and work as colleagues. Saudi women nurses are also perceived as glorified maids. While teaching at the nursing college, my students often face harsh opposition from their fathers and brothers. Some students told me that their fathers and brothers only agreed to allow them to become a nurse on the condition the women give them their stipends or salaries once they become employed. Some nursing students quit the university in mid-semester under immense pressure from their families.

It’s no wonder that there is a chronic shortage of Saudis, particularly women, in the health care industry.

The first Saudi female nursing college originated in 1961 and offered a two-year program. By 1992, there were 46 health institutes in Saudi Arabia. In 2008, the last year nursing statistics were available from the Ministry of Health, there were 101,298 nurses employed in the government health care sector.

Yet Saudis accounted for only 29 percent of those nurses. The numbers are even more dismal in private health care facilities: Only 4 percent of the private health care professionals were Saudi.
According to a 2011 International Nursing Review study, only 12 percent of all Saudi nurses are women.

Turnover in employment, according to the same study, remains high because of the lack of awareness in nursing job opportunities, conflicts with the family and difficult working conditions, such as night shifts, long hours, working holidays and weekends, and relatively low salaries.

Despite these obstacles, the women I have spoken to want these jobs and are willing to put up with the modest income and difficult working hours.

Notwithstanding the families who abuse their daughters and sisters’ trust by demanding their salaries in exchange for having a job, most Saudi women want the independence and tremendous boost in self-esteem that comes with that independence.

Teachers don’t teach and journalists don’t write to become rich. They perform their jobs to serve their community. They make the world a better place to live by teaching their community’s children or providing information to help people better understand the world. The same applies to nursing. What better way to serve our community by aiding the sick and dying. It’s a noble profession that deserves better treatment from Saudi society.

And for those women seeking financial fulfillment and security, nursing offers a stepping stone to higher paying administrative jobs, management positions in the government or private health sector, or even as a medical doctor.

I have high hopes for the graduating nurses at my university, but I also appreciate the obstacles they face from their families, friends and even the patients they will care for. It won’t be easy. If we continue to cling to outmoded ideas, traditions and customs, we set up Saudi women for failure.

I see today’s young women with their new nursing certificates as trailblazers who honor and further the cause of the first female nursing graduating class from 1963. But I also have to wonder why is it that 49 years later Saudis still struggle to give female nurses the respect they deserve.
The picture is taken from


KHC said...

Glad to read your posts - keep them coming!

Average Joe Body Builder said...

Personally I think nurses should be given a higher salary, considering what they have to put up with. Maybe the higher salary will encourage their family members to agree to them getting the job in the first place?