Switch On The Lights: 5 minute read by Farriz Mashudi -24/11/2020

            The toilet didn’t have a seat.

            For a small medical centre, the place was relatively big. More importantly, it was private and I could be in and out of there fast. Or so, I’d hoped. The pain I was in being due to my own pitiful attempts at self-diagnosis, the only certainty was that the doctors would be exacting revenge.

            Not merely from my head being cloudy (a high fever, I was told), there was definitely something different about the place. Had it been refurbished? I couldn’t recall it looking this nice before. It could almost pass for Al Ahli, the specialists’ hospital I go to for routine check-ups.

             “This is the new wing,” my husband says. He registers my details at the Reception as I wait in agony on the empty seating opposite, admiring the new chartreuse paint and oak-coloured wood trim.

            “You prefer male or female doctor, Madam?” Both the receptionist and husband were looking for an immediate answer. What a loaded question. Where would I begin?

            “Lady doctor, I think?”

            “The lady doctors are in the other wing. Go through the . . .”

            “Why? Hang on, wait a minute . . .” The other wing as I recalled was a cold, steely interior. Inferior. “Why aren’t the women doctors here, too, on this side. Why do only the men doctors get nice rooms?” Empty stares all around. Surely the women doctors wouldn’t tolerate being bullied? Surely . . .


That was the sign that should be on the walls. The type of graffiti that helped to make sense of it all.

            There was no lid to cover the toilet bowl.

            “The other side’s not so bad,” my husband tells me. “It’s been refurbed to match.”

            Well, that was something at least. “Okay, what’s the doctor’s name? Where’s she from?” The nurse’s face is a blank. “Is she an Arab doctor?”

            “Yes, yes. Dr. Arwa Alhamtajab, from Iraq.”

            “Give me a male doctor please.” I’d had Arab women doctors before, none of them nice. Not to say they weren’t professional. Just not very pleasant, not to me at least. The worst — still a source of nightmares — came to my bedside just after 11 p.m. the night before key-hole surgery to remove a cyst. The Iranian surgeon — Persian, not Arab, but similar in this regard — scheduled to perform the procedure had, without so much as a ‘Good evening, how are we doing ahead of tomorrow?’ made a perfunctory recommendation to remove my womb. Entirely.

“For endometrioma, this is the best. No more worry about cysts.” No more hormones, either. No more normal life. All matter of fact.  

            It was the nurse again, growing in persistence. “But Ma’am, the doctor is good. Her English is fine, no problem.” A deft rolling of the neck. The nurse was from India. Gentle and sympathetic, well-meaning; I could feel it in my bones. They speak lots of languages there. Could she be trusted on this score? My gut wasn’t so sure. It was all relative, wasn’t it?

            I try to explain herself. “Arab lady doctors have no sympathy. They’re good, but cold. Arab men doctors, though, are kind. Today, besides good medicine, I need to feel kindness.” I didn’t need other women being scornful or judging me for not being tough.

            “But the man doctor he cannot inspect your abdomen, Ma’am. Another lady doctor must still come.”

            Was this new, too? I’d never heard of it before. Usually it was enough that a female nurse was also present in the room. If it was a problem the husband could come in with.  

            “Dr. Arwa is very good Ma’am, I promise.” Well, the nurse seemed awfully keen. And I was in no condition to argue. My head was spinning again.

            The husband was right, the old wing did look nicer now compared to before. But it still felt like being in second-class. How many times had I been through this? Countless.

            So, what was different about it now? One, I wasn’t working anymore so didn’t have an employer in the country to be accountable to for any outburst; two, I was feverish and the safety-traps on my mouth were part of the brain’s functions on temporary shutdown. I felt free to say whatever I thought. Freed of contractual obligations, light-headed, liberated . . . And what was topmost on my mind?

            “The toilets on this side are still bad.” Wooden door, chipped mahogany paint, mortice lock with all extra keys dangling. The clothes rack nailed to the back of it isn’t helping with the modern hospital look either.

            “Oh? The Men’s is fine. Same as like at Al Ahli. Did you try the other one?”

            “No lid. No seat even. How is this hygienic? I harassed the nurse for not complaining. The staff use them, too, but say nothing.”


            For fear of possible Covid infection, I was shown into a room marked ‘Isolation’. It had a reclining bed. Perfect, I could lie down while waiting. And the good doctor? As expected. Mean as they came — when it was just me in the room. But when the husband was there, too, the woman was all heart and friendliness, with a borderline bubbly personality to boot. I laughed about it later with the husband, but it still made me feel sick (despite being put on the correct meds).

How exactly was the doctor ‘mean’? A cold, icy demeanour from her first step through the door, being curt and terse and expressionless. — Or was this me misinterpreting the language barrier? A wordless smile certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss. Dismissive, cutting short her explanations of symptoms, complicated as they were — because the doctor was clearly busy and had heard enough. Or was it something else, which was unspoken and more difficult than any medical prognosis to establish, and wouldn’t have been an isolated incident: Was it the invisible elephant of racism in the room colouring their interaction? With my strong resemblance to a Filipina, and my name almost Indonesian, the possibility was real. — This was the Middle East. Both nationalities serve as housemaids and nannies across the region and for their pains live with the ill treatment of being deemed inferior. The husband on the other hand, bless him for not even realising it, easily passes for an Arab with that patrician nose of his (even though it’s her with the Yemeni blood).


            Similarly unsettling affronts popped up while I was watching Margaret Thatcher (in The Crown, Season 4) explaining to the Queen that she couldn’t possibly have women ministers in her Cabinet on account of their being too emotional. It was equally as painful to watch the same great Dame conducting Cabinet meetings wearing a frilly apron while cooking kedgeree in her kitchen in Downing Street. What was it with the need to be a superwoman as well as a hero to all of mankind?

            Was the husband not handy around the kitchen? Of course, he wasn’t. It was only Maggie that was before her time.

            What then was wrong with having a cook on the payroll, especially if you were running a country? Which was the more important?


            It’s a TV series, true. But I don’t believe that much was really fictionalised. Take these scenes, which are closer to the reality of most people’s lives than many would probably care to admit: Even as the Prime Minister confesses (to the Queen again) that her son, Mark is her favourite child, the husband tells their daughter, Carol (poor, suffering Carol) that it’s just the way it is with mothers and their sons.

            It reminds me of a friend, an only daughter in Doha with two brothers doted on by their mum. — A woman whom, despite being well-educated and an educator herself (a professor of History) openly professes the importance of her male offspring over any female progeny. The father, too, makes light of his daughter’s achievements, which are manifold in comparison to the boys.

            Culturally, in the Middle East, whatever’s said about Islam treating women like pearls, even in the same family, women are deemed second-class. And this is accepted, tolerated, endured.

            A male Qatari colleague once told her that it was for their own safety that his female relatives in Saudi weren’t permitted to drive. Saudi men are, in his words, ‘like animals’ and would, without a second thought, turn their SUVs around and chase a woman off the road at the mere sight.

            “They’re stuck in the Dark Ages there. Because of the politics, to control the masses,” he said. “Religion’s got nothing to do with it then?” I asked, being a Muslim, too.

            “What of the testimony of two women being required to equal a man’s?”

            “That’s because women get hormonal. Certain times of the month they can’t think straight.”

            ‘Hormonal’, ‘emotional’, ‘can’t think’. . . What excuses do men have for the great choices they make? . . . Quick, look, there’s a woman driving!

            From some . . . nay, many women, to some female doctors to a lot of broken and ugly toilets, and for the armfuls of mothers of all levels of ignorance and their inequitable treatment of daughters and sons — and yes, also to the men who are like those as described to me driving madly in Saudi Arabia:


Someone, please, switch on the lights.

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