Muslims are required to learn the Islamic etiquettes pertaining to their professions from trusted scholars; but they are not supposed to act according to their own understanding, because this can lead to serious mistakes, even when one is generally observing the general rules of Islam.
As it is clarified below, the case at hand has many dimensions and complications that could be handled only by a knowledgeable scholar who is aware of the nature of this work.
In his response to your question, Dr. Hatem Al-Haj, dean of the Shari`ah Academy of America, stated,
There are two different principles that one has to consider with regard to this issue:
1. The impermissibility of looking at or touching of the ‘awrah (parts of the body that must be covered) of anyone, whether of the same sex or of the opposite sex. Certainly, this is more emphasized when it comes to the `awrah of a member of the opposite sex. Islam greatly emphasizes this because it represents a fortress that is meant to protect social cohesion, prevent moral deterioration, and prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
2. The need of treating the sick, which is a societal obligation on Muslims. It is also an act of charity to be extended to all people. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The kind treatment extended to any living creature is an act of charity.” (Al-Bukhari)
In light of this, it becomes permissible for health-care workers, whether physicians or nurses, to treat members of the other sex, but a nurse or physician from the same sex should be sought whenever possible. This is stated in decision 81 (8/12) of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which advises health authorities to do their best to encourage women to enter the field of medicine to limit the need for male physicians in the treatment of female patients.
This is also the position of members of the Standing Committee for Islamic Research and Ifta‘ in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In their answer to a question about female nurses’ washing of male patients, they stated that this is permissible when a male nurse is not available.
In his book Ar-Rawd Al-Murbi`, Al-Bahuty states, “It is permissible for physicians and their likes to look or touch [the `awrah of patients] when there is a [medical] need.” In his commentary on the book, Ibn Al-Qasim says, “[This is] like the one who looks after a male or female patient, and helps him or her with wudu‘ [ablution] or istinjaa‘ [washing of the private parts].”
These positions are in accordance with the balance between the basic principles mentioned above and the various authentic reports indicating that female Companions such as Ar-Rubayi`, Umm `Atiyyah, and `A’ishah who would follow Muslim armies to provide soldiers with water and treat the wounded. It was also reported that the Companions used to examine the pubic area of guilty persons to spare them of due punishment if they were found to be children.
As for the case in question, since there is no possibility to follow the guidelines provided above, including seeking of a nurse from the same sex in principle, it seems that this encounter will be a routine for female nurses, not an exception that may be tolerated for the greater benefit of giving comfort to a patient who, otherwise, wouldn’t find a same sex nurse to help them. Therefore, I would recommend the following guidelines for the female nurses who are faced by this dilemma:
1. They should seek appointment in specialties or settings where they would not encounter this problem.
2. If they work in fields that involve washing male patients, and they cannot arrange with male colleagues to exchange duties, where they can handle female patients and their male counterparts handle male patients, then they should:
a. Perform the job that is considered part of their obligation as nurses.
b. Look at and touch only that which is necessary for the performance of their job.
c. Use barriers, such as gloves, which are required anyway by the standards of health-care work.
d. Avoid seclusion.
e. Limit interaction to the professional aspect of their job.
f. Perform what is required while avoiding socializing with patients from the opposite sex. Almighty Allah says, (So fear Allah as much as you can.) (At-Taghabun 64:16)