50.50: Feature

Islamophobia in maternity care: ‘I wasn’t listened to and my baby died’

Report reveals that Muslim women are bullied into labour inductions and deprived of pain relief

Ghazal Abbasi
19 July 2022, 12.40pm

Muslim women have described feeling ignored and sidelined in their own maternity care

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Lisa Ryder/Alamy Stock Photo

Muslim mothers whose babies died or ended up in intensive care after their concerns were ignored have spoken about feeling “unheard and unseen” in UK maternity services because of their faith.

It comes after research published last week by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Muslim Women, which interviewed more than 1,000 Muslim women in the UK and found a fifth had received ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ care when engaging with maternity services. The report was branded “heartbreaking” by the Royal College of Midwives.

Some Muslim women felt they were treated inhumanely and talked down to because they looked different from white women, while Black women were particularly at risk of not being given adequate pain relief. A number said they felt bullied into having labour induced.

Ayesha Khanom, a mental health specialist from Milton Keynes, told openDemocracy that her own maternity experience had “destroyed” her “mentally, as a person”.

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After noticing that her bump had stopped growing five months into her pregnancy, alongside other unusual symptoms, she raised concerns with her midwife to no avail.

“I wasn’t listened to,” she said. “My baby daughter died as I was giving birth to her.”

Ayesha Khanom

Ayesha Khanom, a mental health specialist from Milton Keynes, who says her concerns were dismissed by maternity services before she suffered a miscarriage

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Ayesha Khanom

It is only recently that Ayesha was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggered by her bereavement.

The APPG report is titled “Invisible” because women are not heard when they raise their concerns, said Shaista Gohir OBE, who is chief executive of the Muslim Women’s Network UK and author of the report. “They are unheard and unseen.”

Raheema* told us that during her fourth pregnancy, staff were dismissive of the idea that something felt “wrong”.

“I’ve had three children – that should be grounds to be taken seriously,” she said. “In the delivery suite I found myself surrounded by eight members of staff, and the word ‘complications’ was being thrown around. I had no idea what was going on.”

Though Raheema’s baby had to be kept in the neonatal intensive care unit, she made a full recovery.

“The doctor told me loudly that she was going to ‘chop me up’ while making scissor motions with her hands before I gave birth to my son,” said Ayesha. “Not only was I already terrified from having lost my daughter, I was made to feel as though I was uneducated.”

Asifa*, who practises as a doctor herself, said her request to be covered throughout the delivery wasn’t taken seriously until she revealed her profession to a member of staff.

“Suddenly, her whole demeanour changed. I found it bizarre that she respected me as a colleague, but not as a patient.”

As well as faith, women said other intersecting identities played a role in the way they were treated.

Black women, from all backgrounds, were less likely to be given pain relief – a pattern also reported by fivexmore, a grassroots organisation aiming to change Black women and birthing people’s maternal health outcomes.

All three women said they worried about the maternity experiences of women who did not speak English fluently: “If there’s a language barrier present, how do you advocate for yourself when those who speak English are trying and failing to do so?” said Asifa.

In the online survey, women recounted comments such as: “The midwife called my name and said very loudly ‘hope this one can speak English.’” Another was told: “Women from ‘your communities’ should know how to breastfeed.”

The report has called for actions to improve maternity outcomes such as better data collection, a cultural shift in attitudes and better information provision about risks, rights and complaints processes.

“I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t bring my baby back. But I can make changes for other women by voicing my experiences,” said Ayesha.

* Names have been changed

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