"Positive Muslims"

A South African NGO and Its Fight against Aids

Approximately 5.5 million people in South Africa live with the HI virus; every ninth person is infected, among them many Muslims. Almuth Schellpeper paid a visit to "Positive Muslims", an NGO that fights the disease – and the stigma that goes with it

​​After India South Africa has the second highest incidence of Aids in the world. And although the state spends a lot on Aids education, the disease is still regarded as a stigma in South Africa.

Also, in the past few years, a politically steered mystification regarding Aids has emerged in South Africa: The Health Minister called virus-inhibiting medications into question because of their side effects and advised Aids patients to eat a healthy diet with red beets, garlic, and olive oil instead; the President disputed the fact that the HI virus triggers Aids; the magnitude of the epidemic was challenged; and charlatans who claim they have a cure for HIV have been given free rein.

Advocates for the HIV-positive population

Aids activists, by contrast, put their efforts into education and acting as advocates for the HIV-positive population. Religious organizations as for instance "Positive Muslims" play an important role in this respect. In Cape Town the organization has existed for six years, its office housed in a small building in the Observatory district, not far from the city center.

With seven employees and two volunteers it offers psychological, legal and medical counseling in addition to workshops and self-help groups for HIV-positive Muslims.

Farahneez Hassiem, a longtime employee at "Positive Muslims," is often confronted in Muslim communities with the preconceived notion that devout Muslims cannot become infected with the HI virus; after all, the Koran permits sex only within marriage. Farahneez maintains, on the other hand, that many women become infected outside of their marriages. Moreover anyone can contract Aids, even Muslims.

Nuraan Osman, an employee in the area of education and awareness raising, stresses: "As a Muslim organization we want to support the Islamic ideal and emphasize abstinence and fidelity. But in reality people are not abstinent. We want to inform participants in our courses so they are in a position to make successful decisions for themselves." The organization does not distribute condoms, but it does refer to condoms as a contraceptive and as a way to protect oneself from getting Aids.

Warnings and premonitions

Fifty-eight-year-old Mymoena Jacobs regularly visits a self-help group at "Positive Muslims." Mymoena is married, mother of four children, and lives in the township Manenberg. As she talks about herself, tears run down her face: "People need to know that it is not pleasant being HIV positive. I am still shocked about it, and it has now been two years since I got infected, but I can't forget it. Sometimes I can't believe that I did it."

Two years ago Mymoena had a lover who had Aids. They did not use condoms. She only learned about his disease after it was too late. When she continued to lose weight, lost her appetite, and began sweating excessively, she finally went to the doctor and let herself be tested. She told her husband, her sister, and her two daughters about her disease. She did not confide in neighbors or friends; they would only badmouth her, she says. Mymoena regularly takes her medications, and most of the time she feels just fine.

Strength and a spiritual home

Farahneez Hassiem points out that the basic principles of their work are compassion, responsibility, and fairness:

"A few years ago religious leaders were still calling HIV and Aids a curse from God. To refute the negative message coming from the pulpit one needs to look at the Koran more closely and not take things out of context. HIV and Aids is not only about sex, but about poverty and relations between men and women. The Koran says the sick should be dealt with in a certain manner; the response to this is the theology of compassion. Aids is a disease like many others; therefore people with Aids should also be treated with compassion."

As a religious-oriented Aids organization "Positive Muslims" is trusted and well-respected within the Muslim community. This enables its employees to work more effectively and to offer those with Aids strength and a spiritual home.

For 2007 the South African government has developed a new five-year plan for Aids prevention and treatment. For one, it plans to provide many more patients with virus-inhibiting medications. Farahneez Hassiem views the government's new commitment with a critical eye: "Principles and realization are beautiful words, but in the end they are not complementary. As a realistic South African woman I will first wait and see if it actually works."

Almuth Schellpeper

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce


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