Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows.
Amid the havoc and uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the world, one thing has remained constant: Babies continue to be born. In the United States, these births continue to take an unusually high toll on mothers. In fact, it is shocking that despite the fact that we are one of the most developed nations, we have one of the worst maternal mortality rates, according to The Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit that supports independent research on health policy. The numbers are disturbingly high for women of color. For example, Black and Hispanic women are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to suffer adverse events during the perinatal period. Similar disparities exist for many other aspects of health, including mental wellbeing.
What about other minorities? How does religious observance affect care, especially as it relates to Muslim women? Over the past several months, I’ve been exploring these and other questions as a Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow.
I became passionate about delving into the science of how Muslim women are impacted during their perinatal period when I became a mother. As someone who is visibly Muslim through the observance of my hijab, I am no stranger to the onslaught of negativity that comes with how I am perceived, due to the bigotry that peppers the media. Just recently, U.S.Representative Ilhan Omar was subjected to Islamophobic comments from one of her colleagues. These prejudices in turn trickle down and affect the way perspectives are formed and care is delivered in clinical settings. While religion and politics are often said to be taboo topics in medicine, they are increasingly becoming inextricably linked to science and health care.
A puzzling thing I discovered however, is that there is not much data out there on health care outcomes for Muslim women. When I contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one physician indicated religion was not factored in their data collection and analysis. Because of this lack of data, it is hard to determine what Muslim women may be feeling about the care they’re receiving — a challenge made even more difficult by the fact that Muslim women are a minority in the U.S. and also encompass many different ethnicities.
Oftentimes, we need data to drive the research and even receive funding. But what happens when there is no data to begin with? How, then, does one justify a research question and go about securing funding?
I hear women relaying the same concerns: The lack of knowledge of Islamic practices, and therefore the lack of proper accommodations, are an impediment that prevents women from receiving proper treatment.
As I speak with my sources, I have one recurring thought: I cannot help but think that I need to become a firmer advocate for my community as I continue my reporting. The fact that I share a background with the Muslim mothers I speak with gives me insight into how warped our system is. For me it is a lived reality. Although I try my best to be objective, I hear women relaying the same concerns: The lack of knowledge of Islamic practices, and therefore the lack of proper accommodations, are an impediment that prevents women from receiving proper treatment.
If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are all interconnected, and the issues around us are also linked. It is time for science to stop casting a blind eye to religion, and to recognize how religion shapes the quality of care for Muslim patients. My project fellowship has given me the chance to sharpen my reporting skills and create an arsenal of tools with which to champion these and other marginalized communities.
Tasmiha Khan is a freelance writer from the Midwest. She champions marginalized communities, particularly the Muslim American population, including women and children.