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Muslim pharmacist takes Life Entabeni Hospital to CCMA over right to keep arms covered

Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Published Aug 3, 2022

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Durban - The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) will today conduct an arbitration hearing to ascertain if a hospital acted unfairly towards a Muslim medical practitioner over her religious instructions to keep her arms covered.

In February this year, the matter between Farzana Ismail and Life Entabeni Hospital was referred to the CCMA after talks between the two parties failed to reach an amicable agreement.

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According to minutes of the Pre-Arbitration Meeting, Ismail began working at the hospital as a pharmacist in May 2011 before she was promoted to the role of a Clinical Practice Pharmacist in September 2016. The minutes state that hospital management was aware of and approved Ismail's dress code which covered her arms up to her wrists as per the Islamic dress code.

In March 2018, a new policy was introduced which meant all people entering the clinic area would have to be bare below the elbows in order to avoid the risk of spreading infection. Three meetings were held between hospital management and Ismail to address her exception to the policy, however, all meetings to find an amicable solution were unsuccessful.

Hospital management rejected Ismail's proposals that she either wears an isolation gown or that she wears medical sleeves which could be changed between seeing patients. Management also chose to review Ismail's role as a Clinical Practice Pharmacist and ordered her to work remotely as she did not need to attend ward rounds.

The matter was then referred to the CCMA in February. However, in June 2021 an update was made to the 'bare below elbow policy' that made concession for other religious practices, but not the Muslim religion.

The Arbitration is to ascertain if Ismail had been subjected to unfair discrimination in respect of her religion, whether the policy is reasonable, whether Ismail is entitled to compensation as a result of the discrimination, as well as whether management acted contrary to the provisions of the Employment Equity Act and whether their actions were justifiable.

Professor Shaheen Mehtar is expected to be called an expert witness to testify on Ismail’s behalf.

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Last year, the South African Defence Force amended its military religious dress policy to accommodate the wearing of a headscarf with military uniform. This followed the three-year-long battle of Major Fatima Isaacs, a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf covering her hair and head under her military beret in accordance with her religious beliefs since she officially joined the force in February 2010.

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