Even during a pandemic, female doctors are facing harassment

Even during a pandemic, female doctors are facing harassment

Where doctors are offering their services in a crisis like no other, some men are trolling them with vulgar messages.
Updated 04 May, 2020

Doctors across Pakistan and all over the world are on the frontlines during the coronavirus pandemic.

While a lot of them are working tirelessly in hospitals - isolating themselves from their families and risking their own lives - testing and treating patients, many have also volunteered their services to raise awareness and made themselves available to answer any concerns of civilians.

All around social media, folks are sharing their appreciation for medical workers, calling them heroes and warriors. Surely they're getting the respect they deserve, right?

Well, the male doctors are... Can't say the same for women.

Apparently, even a pandemic can't stop predators from harassing women in the medical field who are utilising their time to help those in need. And those doctors have had enough.

Yep, you got that right. Where doctors are talking about saving yourself from a dangerous virus, some men are trolling them with vulgar messages.

Imagine being a doctor and trying your best to help people, being made to waste precious time having to block/report numbers using such abusive language.

For female doctors, this is not a new case though, as Dr. Anza shared with Images.

"It starts right from when you join med school. If you mention it on your social media profile or even hint at it, the messages start pouring."

"What's weird is how they always start off in an eerily 'respectful' manner, saying 'Hello doctor sahiba' and then it goes off in a bad direction. Sometimes it's from other doctors - or people claiming to be doctors/med students."

Dr. Fizza* started facing problems after becoming a volunteer.

"I've been relatively under the radar so I hadn't really faced anything like what I had heard from fellow doctors," said Fizza.

"When the time came to volunteer, I joined in immediately, genuinely hoping to help as much as I can. But then came the attacks."

"Sometimes they would start off like a real patient but things would take a shift. And I'd ignore it a lot because I'd think, 'They’re just trolls', but sometimes the messages would be too graphic and come with pictures and videos that would just ruin my day. I knew of such things happening but seeing it for myself was depressing."

Fizza revealed that she also backed out of volunteering because it was too much to bear.

Aleeza*, the founder of an online telemedicine company, opened up more about the virtual harassment faced by her team. Her company has a team of female doctors who are digitally connected to patients that need healthcare.

"We have an app through which patients can directly connect with female doctors and have a consultation via chat, audio or video call," said Aleeza, adding that they face this issue a lot on the app, especially the past few months.

"Last Saturday, we made our app free for the coming three months so that people could use it during this pandemic, to ask about Covid-19 symptoms, screenings etc especially because of the lockdown and the load in hospitals, a person shouldn't have to go in just for a consultation."

"We made the app free to help people and every now and then, someone calls to say 'I love you' to a doctor who could be helping a person who needs it, saying 'Please talk to me', 'What are you doing', 'Tell me about yourself'. As soon as someone starts doing so, we block them. We've had enough to know how to deal with them now."

For this app and its doctors, the preparation came from a previous spammer attack. Aleeza revealed that they had been facing issues long before they made their app free. That's right, people paid to troll female doctors who just wanted to do their job.

"Around two months ago, we had a spammer attack where a number of men started calling all our doctors, booking their slots, which the doctor couldn't unbook for another patient and bombarding them with missed calls. The doctors couldn't see any other patients."

"Then those guys started having inappropriate conversations, sending vulgar pictures and porn site links within the session... Again, this was when the app wasn't even free. They were paying to do all this! I guess we did make good money from it."

Of course Aleeza and her team took immediate action to figuring it out and reducing the trolling.

"We reported it and added some checks and balance on our app after which it reduced significantly but they're still there."

Despite all the regulations, some problematic folks still get through, and while it may be a joke for some, the damage is quite deep for the people at this telemedicine company.

"I work with doctors who come back to work," explained Aleeza. "The main purpose of my company is to bring female doctors who've left the field back into the workforce. So many aspiring doctors end up quitting after marriage. It takes a lot for them to convince their family for why they need to come back to work even though this is a manageable way to do so."

"Some of my doctors actually said they can't do this because when they come back to work and they get this treatment, their family becomes very upset. During the spam attack, a lot of them got disturbed and demotivated."

She added, "We do our best to help our doctors but it's sad that we have to mentally prepare them for this. There should be more talk about this because a lot of hospitals are using telemedicine now. A lot of doctors especially female doctors will face this abuse."

According to Dr Tooba*, another who volunteered to help during the pandemic, calling out their behaviour doesn't work.

"They want a response out of you. Whether it's angry or complicit. They know no matter what they do and no matter how you response, you will bear the brunt of it all. That' the victim-blaming culture."

Tooba shared that her family got very concerned from the first time it happened.

However, she isn't backing down.

"I'm a vocal person, so the first time a guy started saying gross things, I was angry and was yelling at him. Thankfully, my family is understanding about such situations but they worry about me. I don't blame them, just like I don't blame the women who aren't volunteering anymore. It takes a toll on you."

Of course there are many like Tooba who are standing strong, getting work done despite all these hurdles. They're calling out the problematic behaviour and moving past it. But should they have to? Not at all.

We've normalised harassment so much that we expect this to happen and as a society, it's a nuisance to hear about such accounts. Too many times we've seen women post about what they face in their daily lives and some respond with "That's life" or "No need to make a hue." Guess what? When they aren't vocal, you deny it happening or restrict it to singular analogies.

It's about time we address such problems and for the love of humanity - the very humanity these doctors are trying to save - stop harassing women who are just trying to do their job.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.