The Telegraph (U.K.) reports (thanks to my friend Manny Klausner for the pointer):
[Muslim w]omen training in several hospitals in England have raised objections to removing their arm coverings in theatre and to rolling up their sleeves when washing their hands, because it is regarded as immodest in Islam.
Universities and NHS trusts fear many more will refuse to co-operate with new Department of Health guidance, introduced this month, which stipulates that all doctors must be "bare below the elbow".
The measure is deemed necessary to stop the spread of infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, which have killed hundreds.
Minutes of a clinical academics' meeting at Liverpool University revealed that female Muslim students at Alder Hey children's hospital had objected to rolling up their sleeves to wear gowns.
Similar concerns have been raised at Leicester University. Minutes from a medical school committee said that "a number of Muslim females had difficulty in complying with the procedures to roll up sleeves to the elbow for appropriate handwashing".
Sheffield University also reported a case of a Muslim medic who refused to "scrub" as this left her forearms exposed.
Documents from Birmingham University reveal that some students would prefer to quit the course rather than expose their arms, and warn that it could leave trusts open to legal action....
A few thoughts:
1. Certainly hospitals should insist on maintaining proper levels of hygiene, even if that violates some doctors' or students' religious views. Reasonable accommodations of religious beliefs are generally good, but an accommodation that puts patients' health at risk is not reasonable. And while I'm not an expert, my sense is that the hospitals' insistence on not leaving garments hanging below the elbow is sound.
2. At the same time, hospitals should be open to proposed accommodations that would satisfy the Muslim women doctors' and students' felt religious obligations but at the same time protect patients' health. For instance, if it is possible -- as the Islamic Medical Association's spokesman suggests -- to have "long, sterile, disposable gloves which go up to the elbows," that might well be a reasonable accommodation.
3. More broadly, my sense is that such reasonable accommodations are not only good for religious observers, but good for the rest of us, too. When Islamic women go into respected professions, that undermines conservative Islam's subordination of women, and brings Islamic culture closer to Western norms. "Women have bare arms" vs. "women have gloves on their arms" is a relatively small cultural difference. "Women become doctors" vs. "women don't become doctors" is a much bigger cultural difference.
It may well be that as conservative Muslim women become more professionally liberated, women's standards of dress will become more relaxed, too. The two have gone hand in hand in the West. But even if the standards of dress will remain, both Western society and Islamic women will be better off when more Islamic women become professionals. Reasonable, safe accommodations (if these are possible) that help pull more Islamic women into medicine are thus better than refusing all accommodations and thus pushing some Islamic women away.