Doctor calls hijab ‘instrument of oppression’ in medical journal article

Canada’s largest medical journal is accused of giving a platform to Islamophobia in a published article. Faiza Amin on why some say the article is dangerous and harmful to the Muslim community.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

Canada’s largest medical journal is under fire for allowing an article to be published by a doctor in which he calls the hijab “an instrument of oppression.”

Dr. Sherif Emil, a pediatric surgeon and professor at McGill University, was reacting to a photo published on the cover of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in which a young girl was wearing a a hijab.

In Dr. Emil’s article, also published in CMAJ, titled “Don’t use an instrument of oppression as a symbol of diversity and inclusion,” he explains he was only drawn to the article due to the image that accompanied it.

“It has become “liberal” to see the hijab as a symbol of equity, diversity and inclusion,” wrote Dr. Emil.

“The hijab, the niqab and the burka are … instruments of oppression for millions of girls and women around the world who are not allowed to make a choice,” he said.

The article Emil was referring to was titled, “Implementing social interventions in primary care,” and discusses how “social interventions offer an important means to mitigate threats to individual and community health posed by adverse social conditions.”

Dr. Emil claims it’s ironic this article uses a young girl with a hijab to talk about social risks of health as “the one depicted in the image is typically also banned from riding a bike, swimming or participating in other activities that characterize a healthy childhood. She is taught, directly or indirectly, from an early age that she is a sexual object, and it is her responsibility to hide her features from the opposite sex.”

“A heavy burden for modesty is placed squarely on her shoulders. So many women have been traumatized by such an upbringing, which, I believe, frankly borders on child abuse,” the article continues.

Dr. Emil’s article immediately sparked criticism online with the National Council of Canadian Muslims calling for an immediate retraction of the article.

CMAJ has since apologized for the publication on Twitter and is “listening carefully to the critical feedback we’ve received.”

The editor of the article, Kristen Patrick, also apologized online and took “full responsibility” for it being published in CMAJ.

“The letter’s title suggests that the hijab is unequivocally an instrument of oppression; that is wrong, hurtful and offensive. I take full responsibility for the headline. As an editor I know the power of words and that is my error,” her tweet read in part.

Patrick added she has spoken with the COO of the NCCM and will continue to meet with Canadian Muslim women to listen to their feedback.

The Quebec Advocacy Officer for the NCCM, Lina El Bakir, said this type of article being published in a reputable journal is “infuriating.”

“[The article] contributes to dangerously harmful stereotypes about a demographic that has been targeted by some of the most violent forms of Islamophobia in this country,” said El Bakir.

“The hijab is a choice and religious freedom is important. While we agree that there is a place to talk about different job experiences, the article engages in broad generalization and blatant stereotypes. And it is really irresponsible for the journal to have published something like that,” she explained.

“Online hate becomes real life violence,” El Bakir added calling back to the deadly attack on a Muslim family in London earlier this year and the Quebec mosque shootings in 2017.

El Bakir said it comes at an especially tough time for physicians in general during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need physicians, we need people that are ready to work, especially in the time of a pandemic and these kinds of articles just break them.”

Muslim Medical Association of Canada (MMAC) Vice-President Dr. Asma Amjad said their members have called this article, “the most misogynistic and Islamophobic piece of literature that they have read in a medical journal.”

“It’s highly judgmental … [and] highly disturbing. We are not only appalled but truly disgusted,” said Dr. Amjad. “The article is equating a child wearing a hijab as being abused, as being a sexual object, that the hijab is oppressive, that those who choose to wear the hijab don’t belong in a diverse, inclusive society.”

The MMAC represents over a thousand Muslim medical professionals in Canada and Dr. Amjad is concerned what the real-life impact and ripple effect this article will have for them.

“Physicians, health care workers, we probably feel just a little bit less safe. Maybe we feel a little bit more danger. We’re already struggling with Islamophobic ideation around the world and in Canada itself, but this probably leads to feeling a little bit less welcome in Canada,” Dr. Amjad added.

The MMAC is calling for an investigation of Dr. Emil.

“We are getting feedback that our trainees may not be comfortable, other colleagues may not be comfortable working with this person,” said Dr. Amjad. “We’re also concerned about the patients he’s seeing, whether these patients are being subjugated to this bias that he holds. So this is also very concerning, and all of these things need to be investigated.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Emil has since doubled down and defended his article in a series of tweets.

CityNews reached out to Dr. Emil for comment, but did not receive a response.

The MMAC has joined the NCCM in calling for a full retraction of the article and a formal apology from CMAJ. The article was still available on the website as of Wednesday evening.

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