Malawi’s medical regulating body has approved a request to allow Muslim nurses to wear the Islamic headscarf - or hijab - while on duty.
The request came from the education arm of the Muslim Association of Malawi - the Islamic Information Bureau.
“It has taken us almost one year communicating with [officials from] Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi. I remember we had two or three meetings in [the capital] Lilongwe," said national coordinator of the bureau Dinala Chabulika. "You know these are the rights of women. As Muslims, we have the responsibility to defend the rights of our women.
The registrar of the Nurses and Midwives Council agreed to the request - in part, as a way to encourage more Muslim girls to join the profession, which is severely understaffed. In Malawi, there are only 17 nurses for every 100,000 people.
Martha Mondiwa of the Nurses and Midwives Council says the decision to grant the request was based on consideration of the protocol in other nations’ hospitals and how other religious groups are accommodated in Malawi.
“We have [other religious people] like the Catholics who generically have been putting on their uniforms. I think when they [Muslim officials] saw more Muslim women joining the profession, that’s when they decided to ask for it, I don’t know,” she said.
Mondiwa says the Islamic headscarf will need to be in keeping with the approved colors for the country’s health workers - predominantly all white and/or green
“We will not allow them [to] put on colors like black, no," she said. "We encourage all nurses to follow the prescribed nurses' and midwives' colors. So, for example, if someone is a matron, she will put on a hijab with a matron colors and same to others depending to the color they are, they will go for that.”
One of the Muslim nurses at the country’s Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, Duniya Kazembe, says despite the advantages that would come with wearing the hijab while on duty, there are challenges as well.
“When you are in a hijab, some of the patients will respect and appreciate that this one is really dressed well and they will have confidence in you that 'I will be treated [well] with this one.' But [other patients] would segregate nurses who are dressed in a hijab,” said the nurse.
The development comes after Immigration Department authorities allowed Muslim women to start having their passport photos taken with the hijab.
The 2008 population census shows that 13 percent of Malawians are Muslim.