Translating and bridging cultural inequalities

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Suffia Malik

I scurry towards an Indian man pushing his sick wife in a wheelchair. As they weave through the labyrinth of the hospital, I struggle to intercept their path. As we catch up, they wave me, their eyes beaming up with hope on my arrival. The South Asian couple recognize me from the language translations I have done on their behalf, an integral part of my volunteer role. It is a role I am grateful for, as it has defined much of my experiences as a South Asian woman in STEMM.

In the waiting room of the same unit, I greet a Pakistani woman who proudly tells me about her daughters in medicine field. There is a special understanding and language between patients like her and volunteers like me, that does not require translations. In my limited capacity as someone who greets, guides and pushes wheelchairs, such patients are assured that I regard their concerns seriously. They know that I will not gauge them according to notions and stereotypes.

There is ample research on integrating social justice into healthcare, but health care does not just exist parallel to social justice, rather it is social justice. Both the medical system and individuals involved should advocate for their patients’ access to care and remove obstacles in seeking healthcare. As a South Asian woman, I have dealt with hurdles in accessing healthcare and feel that there needs to be a change in the system.

Many women in my Pakistani community seek out South Asian female physicians because they feel respected when they discuss their concerns. They feel that their symptoms are being taken seriously – that they are not wasting their doctor’s time by coming to them. I have seen physicians treating South Asian patients who overlook their cultural sensitivities or dismiss their symptoms as insignificant. I have personally witnessed the barriers faced by South Asian youth – especially in obtaining culturally-sensitive mental health care. With all these system challenges, it is only further concerning that a medical education can be out of reach for many lower-income south Asian students.

Many South Asian women also have to overcome a community apprehension for female STEMM professionals. Being a South Asian and a Muslim woman, I am hyper aware of these issues because my experiences render them as glaring reminders. Because these issues are those facing me and the people around me, I feel responsible for the access I have to multiple communities in order to bridge these gaps. I need to be the translator between the two cultural worlds, by working towards a system where these inequalities are mitigated. This is exactly what all medical professionals should do – use the education and background they have been entrusted with, to provide care and create healthier societies. In this way, the principle of healthcare itself becomes a way to address the inequalities it bears.

With these desires and perhaps guileless energy to create a more equitable health system, I am aware that South Asian women in medicine like me is just a small fraction. But simply increasing the numbers of physicians of different backgrounds is not going to solve these issues. This is why the volunteer work I am involved in, (shout out to Lotus STEMM) is one that embraces the value that comes not only from future, but from history. The same history that gave birth to ground-breaking South Asian female scientists, mathematicians, engineers, physicians and visionaries. But it is only after we take up space and make substantial inroads, can we expect our challenges to be given true credence. It is the story of South Asian resilience that has gotten me so far in my life and allowed me to find joy in running after a wheelchair in the hospital.


About the editor:

Dr. Nida Rehmani is the Junior Academy, Global STEM Alliance, NewYork Academy of Sciences. She is the scientific editor for and content editor for Lotus Stories blogs.

Dr. Rehmani completed her B.Sc. & M.Sc. in Biochemistry from Aligarh Muslim University. Her zeal for higher education led her to pursue Ph.D. in molecular biology. Under the auspices of the Obama Singh exchange fellowship, she continued her research in the Department of Radiology, The Ohio State University, USA. During the program, she earned a M.Ed., specialized in STEM higher education. 

She is a science communication enthusiast and volunteers for advocating STEM education, especially under-represented communities and minorities. She has a flair for writing & maintains her own personal blog She loves cooking and started her own youtube channel: Millenial Recipes. Last but not the least, she is a dedicated mother to an active toddler!

Linkedin: Nida Rehmani

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