As a doctor I am in an extremely privileged position: I get to see people at their most vulnerable. And sometimes my patients see my vulnerabilities too.
I worked for a while at a practice in the area of Manchester that has the highest number recent immigrants of all nationalities. The people may be ethnically diverse, but they are universally poor. The area is one of the most deprived in the country and is home to a large Muslim population. It was rare for me to see a white British patient when I was there, but those I did see were almost all struggling with one sort of addiction or another. It was clear that Muslim patients were struggling too, but at least you could see that they were trying to make a better life for themselves. Children wearing grammar school blazers would come in to translate for their Urdu-speaking parents.
I remember clearly one time when a woman wearing a burka came in to see me because it was rare, even for an area with such a large proportion of Muslims. I immediately began to feel uncomfortable but it wasn’t through fear or embarrassment.
When I see a patient for the first time my eyes start searching for diagnostic clues as soon as they step foot in the door. Even before that I can tell a lot: if it takes a while before I hear a knock, I know that their mobility is poor; if they need me to shout “come in” twice, they might have some hearing difficulty.
My eyes search my patients’ faces and bodies for anything that might help me piece together the diagnostic jigsaw: a clenched fist can indicate pain; a twitch of the mouth can convey unspoken doubt. I watch how they move, how they breath and how they react to my smile. You would be amazed just how much a doctor can learn about you before you even speak. Most of the time they will have formulated a fairly accurate diagnosis within the first 30-seconds of meeting you.
The burka took away all of my usual visual clues. I felt lost and out of control. Was she pleased or worried to see me? Was she in pain? Was she depressed? All I had were her eyes. They were piercing (maybe because they were the only things I could see) but I could not read them.
I took a breath to steady myself and asked her what I could do for her. She told me that she had been having problems with a rash on her face. It might have been obvious that I started thinking about how I was going to go about asking to see it. However, without a pause she unclipped one side of the veil. It was like she had switched on a light and my puzzle fell into place. I could see that she looked sad, and I could also see that she had acne.
It was bad. Large spots on her on her jaw, chin and cheeks – and in places it had left scars. She told me that acne was one of the main reasons that she had started to wear the veil in the first place. Whenever she went out without it people would stare – judging her for something she could do nothing about. At least when she wore the veil she felt some control over what other people saw. It gave her the confidence to go out and interact with others that she otherwise didn’t have.
Before you have an opinion of the burka you need to understand that there are many different reasons why a woman might choose to wear one. And as one of very few white men to have seen beneath it, I can assure you that the only thing under there is a woman, just like any other.