AFRICA: Odds stacked against HIV-positive Muslim women

Heldina Irayanti and Yulis Adam
Johannesburg, 18 December 2007 (PlusNews) - Over a five-year period, Indonesian Heldina Irayanti, 28, was in and out of drug rehabilitation clinics more times than she can remember. But there is one particular stay she recalls vividly: it was 2002 and her HIV test had just come back positive.

"That was when I finally stopped using drugs," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

After her initial shock she decided to tell her family, friends and her then boyfriend - now her husband - Yulius Adam, also a former intravenous drug user, who was diagnosed HIV positive before Heldina.

Little did she know the prejudice she would encounter as a woman, a Muslim and being HIV positive. The discrimination began in her own family. "Adam's family blamed me for having transmitted the virus to him, even though at the time he was diagnosed my test came back negative." She believes that HIV-positive Muslim women experience more prejudice than men in similar circumstances.

Different weights, different measures

Discrimination was the common denominator of all the stories told by HIV-positive Muslim women who participated in the International Conference on Islam and HIV/AIDS, held in late November in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"Women are still regarded as secondary creatures," said Zahra-Tul Fatima, a director at the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), Pakistan Foundation, which focuses on poverty eradication.

Hany El-Banna, president of Islamic Relief Worldwide, the non-governmental organisation which organised the conference, said the tenuous link between culture and religion was what fed this system of "different weights, different measures".

''Women are still regarded as secondary creatures''
"The Koran preaches equal compensation for equal work and the forgiveness of sins," he said. "The gender difference mentality is wrong, but in some countries culture is stronger than religion."

El-Banna cited the example of the honour killings, practiced in a number of Middle Eastern countries, in which a young woman who has had sexual relations prior to marriage was murdered to preserve her family's honour. "But why don't they kill the man too? There needs to be equilibrium and justice," he commented.

Sindile Ngubane, of Al-Ansaar Refugee Service, based in the port city of Durban, South Africa, agreed. "If a teenage girl gets pregnant, she will probably be recriminated and rejected," he said. "But if a boy gets a girl pregnant, no one says anything. They'll probably say that he was the victim of an evil woman."

Sinners and outcasts

Riana Jacobs, the first Muslim woman to go public about her HIV-positive status in South Africa three years ago, said the higher level of prejudice against women was partly because more women than men were open about their condition. "They'd rather keep the issue a secret," said Jacobs, who was diagnosed in 2000.

Another reason is that HIV is commonly associated with illicit sex, but discrimination is a constant, even when infection takes place in other ways. 

Laila Abdul*, 37, with three children, was infected by a blood transfusion in Tanzania, her native country. She only discovered she was HIV-positive when she took the test required by the Canadian government for an immigrant visa.

The prejudice followed her all the way to Toronto, where she now lives. She revealed her condition to a friend, who started a wave of rumours that Abdul was HIV-positive, giving her dubious reputation in the local African community. "The women would call each other and say, 'Careful with your husband, there's a loose woman among us'," she said.

Women have rights

Lina Al-Homri, a doctor of Sharia (Muslim religious law) in the Faculty of Dawa (Muslim missionary work) in Damascus, Syria, said only education could reduce the vulnerability to stigma of Islamic women when it came to HIV.

"The right to education is violated all the time, but education doesn't depend on one's sex," she told a perplexed male audience. "We have to give women the right that Allah gave them to be educated and to express themselves."

She said HIV prevention among Muslim women was directly linked to women's rights, such as being able to choose their own husbands, ask for divorce, ask their partners to be tested, refuse sex with their husbands, demand that their husbands use condoms, and be separated from HIV-positive husbands.

Fatima, of AMAN, suggested practical measures. "There needs to be more places for [HIV] tests, with confidentiality and a support mechanism. And, mainly, more power and autonomy must be given to Muslim women," she said.

Despite the difficulties, some women have chosen to pay the high price of going public. The decision made by Indonesia's Irayanti even had repercussions for her son, Bilal, 3, when the fearful parents of his classmates took them out of school. Bilal, who is HIV negative, was also taken out of school, but returned after his mother explained the situation.

As an HIV-positive Muslim, Irayanti believes she has a responsibility to get people to confront HIV/AIDS. "We have to face up to it," she said. "It's time to talk about HIV and AIDS; if we don't, nothing will change."

* Not her real name


Theme (s): HIV/AIDS (PlusNews),

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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Following her son’s death from an AIDS-related illness, Amarat is the sole carer of his three children
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