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CMAJ letter regarding the hijab: apologies and lessons

Dr. Sherif Emil's statement regarding his CMAJ letter on the hijab where he explains why he wrote the letter in the first place.
Pic of author
Dr. Sherif Emil

On Dec. 20, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published a letter to the editor that I authored, sharing a perspective on the hijab. The letter was a response to an image depicting a toddler in a hijab that appeared earlier in the journal. I was invited to submit the letter after a meeting with the editor-in-chief, the publisher, and a female physician of Muslim background who also found the picture troubling.

This article is an apology and a clarification of my position.

I apologize for the title, “Dont use an instrument of oppression as a symbol of diversity and inclusion." Letters to the editor are submitted untitled. The title was chosen by the CMAJ and the interim editor-in-chief has publicly taken responsibility for it. However, I also take responsibility. I had a chance to request a change, and I did not. The title was inflammatory and should have been changed. I made a mistake.

I apologize for some of the generalizations in the letter, such as what toddlers in a hijab can and cannot do. I was reflecting the experience of the physician who shared her experience with me, and that of other women. Such sweeping statements are inappropriate. Here, too, I made a mistake.

I apologize for some of the inflammatory language, such as equating the hijab on a toddler with borderline child abuse. Like many, the recent scenes from Afghanistan, where the youngest of girls were once again covered, and denied their rights, were fresh in my mind.

I apologize to past, current, and future trainees. I consider teaching not only as my vocation. It is my passion, and I have committed my life to furthering medical and surgical education in my own environment and around the world. I consider educating future physicians and health professionals the ideal way to pay our mentors forward. I work with a very diverse group of residents, including a large number of Muslim residents from the Middle East. Many of these are women, and most wear the hijab. I have mentored several and take great pride in their accomplishments. In my 20 years as an academic pediatric surgeon, I have not once been cited by a resident of any race or faith or gender for discrimination or intimidation. On the contrary, my teaching evaluations have been consistently excellent, and have led to numerous teaching awards and honours. That said, I, myself, continue to learn.

Most importantly, I apologize deeply to the many who were offended and hurt by my letter. That was never my intention. One of those who was deeply saddened, a 15-year-old Muslim boy, wrote me a gracious message about his feelings, amplified by the fact that he had taken pride in my accomplishments. His sadness was also mine. I will be meeting with him privately. This young man set the standards for civil discourse. Other feedback I have received has consisted of insults, hate messages and threats.

My final position will be as clear as my apology.

My article was not intended in any way to attack the hijab in a general or all-encompassing manner. In fact, I clearly stated in my letter: “Many of my trainees, colleagues and patients' parents (and some adolescent patients) wear the hijab. I respect each woman I interact with, as well as any woman's choice to express her identity as she desires. Some women face harassment and discrimination for their choice to wear the hijab. That is real, and it is also wrong (and) I respect the women who see the hijab as liberating.”

My mistakes admitted, I wrote this letter for a specific reason.

I wrote it to take issue with the public display of a toddler in a hijab. As many Muslim women have shared with me, the hijab can be empowering in a society that sexualizes and objectifies women. I completely understand and once again respect that. It is the reason I took issue with portraying a toddler covered. The physician who joined our meeting with the CMAJ described how she was made to feel that her body should be hidden from men from the time she was a toddler. She suffered significant psychological injury that lasted into adulthood. I have heard the same from several other women. I attempted to present that perspective, and I now know I could have shared it in a less inflammatory manner.

I also wrote it to bring attention to women who are not given a choice, women like a Canadian surgeon who shared with me her experience of being assaulted by a bus driver in Iran when, one day as a young girl, she removed her hijab due to extreme heat. Over the last few days, countless women have sent me messages with similar stories. All the Canadian women who shared with me their stories could not share them publicly out of fear of personal and professional retaliation. That itself should trouble many. If I apologize for reflecting their perspective, I would be betraying all of them. I cannot.

I have committed my life to service and advocacy for children and families, and those physicians who take care of them, around the world. In my work and publications, I have consistently strived to amplify the voices of those who were not being heard on topics such as tolerance, injustice, minority rights in the Middle East, free speech, healthcare culture, or medical aid in dying.

Multiple organizations and groups approached my University and Hospital, asking for investigations, reprimands, and other actions. I respect that. They went through the correct channels and the established processes. Other feedback has consisted of accusations, insults, harassments, and threats. Frequently, the letter was misrepresented by statements that never occurred nor were implied in the text. I, and the CMAJ, made mistakes, and have learned much. I hope we can move forward in an environment free from disrespect and intimidation. I pledge to do my part.

Dr. Sherif Emil is the Director of the Harvey E. Beardmore Division of Pediatric Surgery at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, McGill University Health Centre.

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