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OK, Cultural question here, please forgive the stupidity.


Specializes in med-surg, psych, ER, school nurse-CRNP. Has 15 years experience.

OK, forst of all, for those who do not know, I live and work in Alabama. With the exception of learning Spanish (which was more a hobby than a necessity, and has proven to come in real handy!), I have never given much thought to the rites and customs of other cultures, with the exception of what we were taught in school, until they came into play. It was literally that far between times that I HAD to think about it, and was usually a minor thing, like making sure our Jewish or Muslim patients did not receive pork on their diet.

They didn't teach me this in school.

I have had a number of patients of (and work with several docs of) Middle Eastern descent lately, and I have 2 questions.....I would ask, because shy is about the last thing I am, but I really don't want to look like an idiot or accidentally insult somebody.

1) What is the word for the head scarf that the women usually wear? I work with another NP who wears one, but I'd be mortified to ask her.

2) Is it considered rude of me, as a Christian and as a female, to assess the male patients bare-headed? I see their wives and female relations wearing the whatever-it-is-that-I-don't-know-yet, and am curious. Nurses don't even wear hats here, NPs wear whatever, so I just want some input.

I have no problem with the above, if it is considered good manners. To me, it's no different than speaking Spanish to a Hispanic patient. If it helps me make a positive impression, and makes my patient more comfortable, so much the better for me. My family, on the other hand, thinks I'm a hypocrite, because I am firmly in the camp of "No man's going to tell me what to do". You know, that is how I was raised. This is America. I am a very strong independent woman and danged if I'll kowtow to someone just because he happens to be male. I just won't do it. I am ranked right up there with Obama bowing to whoever it was he bowed to. Do I think it meant anything? I don't know. It didn't strike me as any different than curtsying to the Queen of England. Do I curtsy here? No. There, yes, because I'd be in their country and would want to make a good impression. Same with, I think, Cambodia, where it's considered rude to point the sole of your foot towards someone (the reason being that they consider that the dirtiest part of the body). I would endeavor not to insult anyone.

I don't see this as any different, but I would like some advice. Is it considered bad form to assess someone of that culture bare-headed, while his female relations are covered, or would it be considered MORE rude yet to cover my head, even though I am not of the same culture or religion?

No one has said anything to me. All the patients and docs have been more than nice, and the NP I mentioned before is the only one that wears the scarf, so obviously the docs do not take issue with NOT wearing one. I guess I'm being silly, but this is nagging at me, so if you can shed some light on the subject, this dim bulb would be appreciative.


Wearing a head covering is a religious issue. For you to wear a head covereing would be hypocritical. Living in this country they encounter scarfless women every day, I think if you wore one it would be disconcerting. That is different than making every male wear a yarmulke while in a Jewish temple. You are not in a religious environment. I think it's great that you want ot respect their culture, however, they have to respect yours as well.

Emergency RN

Specializes in ED, CTSurg, IVTeam, Oncology. Has 30 years experience.



oh, and do not give anything to a muslim or hindu with your left hand alone, as it is considered unclean. source: http://www.cyborlink.com/besite/international_gift_giving.htm

*** sidebar *** i think "unclean" in this case is meant that it's the hand one wipes one's butt with.

seriously, cultural needs can be a real drain in terms of meeting expectations. i remember one particular patient where it was religiously not even permissible for women to care of him; the hospital had to arrange for all male medical, nursing and various ancillary staff.

and thanks to the op for asking such a culturally sensitive question. :up:

Edited by Emergency RN


Specializes in NICU.

I can help a little, though hopefully someone who is part of this culture can jump in with more info. Being from the metro-Detroit area (until recently), I'm used to interacting with a HUGE middle eastern population, though I am neither middle eastern of Muslim myself. On a completely unrelated note, I SO miss this, because on the culinary side, there are NO middle eastern restaurnats in eastern CT!!! Where will I get my schwarma??

Anyways, on to your question. The head scarf is called a hijab. Muslim women choose to wear them at some point, usually adolescence, and from that point in their life wear them at all times around men that (as one of my friends puts it) they could potentially ever be married to. Basically any man not related to them in a way that would make marriage unacceptable, and that is old enough to get married. It's all part of the cultural perception of modesty, which includes covering all parts of the body (besides the face, although some people do cover that too).

Whether you should wear one or not is a personal choice, but at least in metro-Detroit, where the largest concentration of middle eastern persons in the U.S. is located, it's not the norm to don a hajib if you do not normally wear one as part of your dress. In fact, I can imagine that there are some people that might be a little miffed if you took an item of clothing that is so connected with their religious beliefs and casually put it on/took it off depending on who you were caring for. However, I can't imagine that would be the majority of people.

Hope that helps some.

AngelfireRN, MSN, RN, APRN

Specializes in med-surg, psych, ER, school nurse-CRNP. Has 15 years experience.

Thank you both for the insight, and the links to information.

I had forgotten about the left hand thing. The gentleman that prompted this thread was very kind and gracious, he would shake my hand, and after his testing, he kissed both my hands and then put them to his face. His wife was quite reserved, but very sweet, she would pat my shoulder and thank me.

She also went an extra step in getting his medical records from an overseas hospital accompanied by an English translation, which was a relief, since NO ONE at that hospital that I could find spoke or could read Arabic. ( All my docs that I thought might take a run at it were gone for the day).

As I said, never had an issue, don't want one, and am glad for the insight.


Thank you. The reason I thank you is because you have the guts to ask. I will assist you in answering the questions as you have asked them:

1) The "scarf" that some women in the Islamic faith wear is called a hijab (pronounced "hee-job"). The hijab is worn in many Islamic cultures to actually protect women and keep their hair and bodies covered; modesty is very important. An example would be this: walking by a construction site, hearing the males heckle the pretty girl with the short, flowy skirt. If a woman is covered, the males can not react. Women should be judged on their abilites and not by a plunging neckline or strappy heels.

2)To be "bare-headed" is perfectly okay. You don't have to wear what the Islamic women are wearing to give great quality nursing care; I'm sure you know this. It is not rude. It would be great for you to understand that some older, Muslim men may not want to be undressed or assessed by you. This is not a shot at you in a personal way; it is the individual. Islam is as dynamic as our patients are.

You sound like a Southern lady that is not afraid to speak her mind (boy do I miss the South.) I have been know to raise a little sand myself. As a woman and a nurse, I have to stiffle who I really am to keep my job. Some nurses are so dumb, some doctors are so clueless, some patients love to get on my last nerve; do I tell them how I REALLY feel? Nope. Men-folks are reveared as "Right-folks" in the world scope of things. This is usually a hard pill for American women to swallow. Respect of one's culture is basically easy though. By making a statement:" I am sorry, but I am unaware of ...... Is there anything that I could do to accommodate your culture during your stay here?" I have been hugged and kissed for just this simple gesture. I have also been given food from Somalia, Iraq, Philippines, and some other places that I can not remember. I had to take it (I did not want to insult my patients) and it was GOOD!!!People want to share their culture with others, just ask. Never assume, though. Please anyone correct me if I am wrong.

Good Luck!!

classicdame, MSN, EdD

Specializes in Hospital Education Coordinator.

being respectful is not the same as adopting someone else's lifestyle. If you are friendly and professional I feel that will carry you through most situations.


Specializes in Home Care.

I've learned a lot about different people's customs, religions and cultures just by asking. Our world of many cultures, religions and customs is a fascinating place.

You have a great opportunity to learn about Muslim customs through the NP you mentioned who wears a hijab. You'd be surprised how willing most people are to share their religious customs if you ask politely and without judgment.

A woman who covers her head is a hijabi.

I have a friend in Alabama who is one. American-born, BTW, and adopted the hijab in her 20s.

I visited the Middle East about 20 years ago and found that covering my head, even when I didn't have to, was welcomed. And keeping my eyes downcast also helped.

Interesting question, and thank you for being interested enough to ask.


madwife2002, BSN, RN

Specializes in RN, BSN, CHDN. Has 26 years experience.

Thank you for all your answers I enjoyed reading all your answers

Stacy in North Texas

Specializes in L&D and OB-GYN office. Has 14 years experience.

Hi. My 2 cents here. I would just add that I think the vast majority of Muslim men who are in an American hospital are aware that the vast majority of their nurses and other care givers might not also be Muslim. I don't think they would expect a non-Muslim caregiver to cover up.

Good for you for asking.

A male aide I know refuses to give physical care to other men because he says it violates Islam.

Anyone know about this? An Imam I spoke to locally told me that it is an honorable thing for male or female to care for the sick. It is preferable for the same sex to do it, but not wrong for the opposite gender to do it.


Specializes in ICU, School Nurse, Med/Surg, Psych.

AngleFire you may want to discuss your 'christian' values with a trusted minister. Wearing symbols of another religion without faith in that religion is like wearing a cross because it looks pretty.

mamamerlee, LPN

Specializes in home health, dialysis, others. Has 35 years experience.

This was a good question, IMHO. There are many articles in the various nursing journals about different cultures. Long before these types of questions were routinely asked at admission, I started to ask ALL of my patients "Is there anything I should be aware of in your religion or culture that may affect your care?" There are times when some things may not be able to accommodated, and the patient needs to understand this.

How can one Muslim say - all my care must be given by men, and yet an aide says he cannot care for men? PICK ONE !!! Can't have it both ways!

I cannot imagine any religion that does not make exception to its own code for health reasons. When necessary for health, Jews can eat on Yom Kippor, the holiest day of the year, when everyone over 13 fasts. And in the days of Beef and Pork insulin, some Jews took the Pork insulin. Etc.

Accommodate when possible, but do not allow an entire hospital to be bullied.

mamamerlee, LPN

Specializes in home health, dialysis, others. Has 35 years experience.

One other brief comment - if you were attending a religious service in a mosque, you might be expected to dress accordingly, out of respect. The same way ALL men are expected to wear a head covering in a conservative or orthodox temple.

1) What is the word for the head scarf that the women usually wear? I work with another NP who wears one, but I'd be mortified to ask her.

I'd start asking questions. Other cultures are glad to share. I had some Muslim friends in Bangladesh and I asked questions all the time...and sometimes teased them just like I do everyone else! I know for example, important things, like where young people sneak off to have sex, where they get alcohol, and that sometimes under that Hijab and Abaya, you'll find Victoria Secrets! People everywhere are just people.

AngelfireRN, MSN, RN, APRN

Specializes in med-surg, psych, ER, school nurse-CRNP. Has 15 years experience.

AngleFire you may want to discuss your 'christian' values with a trusted minister. Wearing symbols of another religion without faith in that religion is like wearing a cross because it looks pretty.

Which is why I asked before I went blindly in. I am very secure in my values, thank you, and did not ask to be judged. I asked for advice, as I have seen Muslim-based threads here, figured that at least SOME Muslim nurses visit the site, and wanted to get the best possible advice from someone who knew more than I did about the subject.

I was not looking at the hijab/scarf as a symbol of a religion per se, just as a mark of respect for my patient.

So, if being a "Christian", as you put it means ignoring my curiosity or my desire to show compassion and respect for others, I'll pass. To me, a Christian treats people the way they want to be treated, and I would appreciate someone caring enough to make an effort to show that they were aware of my beliefs, even if they did not practice them. If I as a Christian ask for clergy to visit me, I don't want someone to lay hands on me and call it good, because those are their beliefs and they think that is all there is.

Taking steps to better understand and accommodate other religious beliefs is very Christian, I think. And I do not think that a desire to better serve my patients shows that my values need counsel.

However, you have your opinion, and I did ask for them. I don't have to agree with all of them, but I do thank you for taking the time to respond.

mustlovepoodles, RN

Specializes in OB/GYN, Peds, School Nurse, DD.

A male aide I know refuses to give physical care to other men because he says it violates Islam.

I think that's a crock o' you know what! I'm pretty sure it would not be frowned upon for a male aid to attend a Muslim man. I mean, who else is he going to care for? Not a woman, that's for sure! :uhoh3: Sounds suspiciously like laziness to me.