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A House Divided

October 23, 2010

Bad news for Saudi Arabia’s Dr House wannabes. A Facebook campaign in the Kingdom is calling for the establishment of single sex hospitals. In the women’s hospitals, no men would be allowed to work on the premises.

According to an article in Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, the campaign has gained the support of at least 20 doctors and consultants. The statement on the Facebook page says:

“Mixing of men and women in hospitals and other places leads to much corruption and vices such as exchanging looks, breaking the barriers between men and women and the creation of unethical relationships, which is forbidden in Islam”

Oh boy. Perhaps they’ve been looking with horror at all those western medical soaps, saturated as they are with “exchanged looks” between hunky consultants and adoring nurses. As for unethical relationships, half of Hollywood would be out of work if the doctors of ER, Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy confined their attention to the insides of their unfortunate patients.

Not in my back yard....

Actually, medical soaps are quite popular in the Middle East. There’s even an Arabic-dubbed version of House. Arabic-speaking fans of the series tell me that the dubbed version doesn’t quite capture the sardonic tone of Dr Greg’s omnidirectional misanthropy. What’s more, if you seek out an Arabic soap on your satellite TV in Saudi, you’ll have no problem finding plenty of “exchanged looks”, in that delightfully over-the-top style beloved of Egyptian actors and actresses.

Joking apart, there are practical implications. Would these doctors extend the segregation to emergency medicine? Would this mean separate ER’s for men and women? If only one ambulance is able to get to a road traffic accident in time, would they pick up an injured man before a woman? And if the ambulance picked up a man and a woman, who would be dropped off first at the single sex ER? And would men be allowed to visit their spouses without every other patient in the ward being screened off up to protect them from those dangerous glances?

The lady who wrote the Facebook statement appears to have a wider agenda. She calls for an end to gender mixing in schools and university, and appeals to the government to reverse the rising tide of desegregation. That’s a refrain you will hear regularly across the Saudi media. equally balanced by views to the contrary.

She also states that in Britain there is an increasing trend towards separation of men and women patients. Well yes, she’s right in saying that there’s a strong lobby in favor of segregated wards in the UK. But that’s a long way from having separate hospitals. Any attempt to bring that about would lead to the rapid collapse of the British National Health Service for a variety of reasons.

I find it sad that doctors themselves are targeting the health services in their campaign. Long ago my wife spent several years working in Saudi, first as an emergency room head nurse and then running a military clinic. She would tell you that Saudi doctors and nurses of both sexes worked happily alongside each other in a highly professional manner. It was true that cultural concerns inhibited the recruitment of a large number of female Saudi nurses, but that constraint didn’t seem to apply to women doctors. But my wife’s experience was that Saudis and expatriates of both sexes worked as dedicated teams in the interests of their patients, with little time for “exchanging looks”. And absolutely no time for anything other than patient care with the constant stream of traffic accident victims – a problem still with us today.

Clearly a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the 1980s. But hey, isn’t it great that Saudis are free to express their opinions on Facebook – at both ends of the social spectrum?

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