“I lived my life serving my husband and family as I am taught in religion, now my husband is dead and I am told to leave the village.”
These are the words of a Malaysian Muslim woman living with HIV cited in one of the plenary presentations of the HIV/AIDS in Islamic Majority Settings pre-conference held in Kuala Lumpur on 29 June 2013, a day prior to the start of the 7th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention.
The one-day affiliated independent event, hosted by IAS, International HIV Partnerships and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and supported by ViiVHealthcare, Partners in Population and Development and UNAIDS Iran Country Office featured plenary presentations by local as well as international activists and scholars from the Muslim world on the strengths and challenges of doing research and delivering services around HIV and AIDS within Islamic majority settings.
After a welcome remark by Shirin Heidari of IAS; Camelia Sulaiman (photo above), a transgender woman activist of PT Foundation (Malaysia), recounted the condition of Muslim transgender women in the country, where cross-dressing is criminalized in the dual legal systems (civil and shariah), thereby rendering them more vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.
Then Navid Madani of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, mapped out the diversity of Islam according to sects as well as social, cultural, political and historical contexts. She continued to lay out the roadmap for the day’s discussion: successes and gaps of work in Islamic settings, translating the local to the global and vice versa, and empowering or engaging patients and health care workers, including obtaining funds for such activities.
Two provoking presentations set the stage for the rest of the day’s discussions. Ilyas Yee, Malaysian AIDS Council, explained the challenges and successes of HIV work in the country. Beginning with the challenge of a moralistic view of the disease and key affected populations among Islamic leaders, he was quick to show that a combination of emphasizing the compassionate nature of Islam, using Islamic cultural language and pointing out the public health demands related to the disease have enabled people like him to make headways in the form of a manual on HIV and Islam and an increasingly moderate stand among many Islamic leaders.
This was followed by a very lucid presentation by Zied Misri, Global Network of Researchers on HIV/AIDS in the Middle East and North Africa Region, who expounded on the lack of research in the Muslim world. A combination of inadequate support for research and education of researchers resulted in this dearth. On the other hand, there had been progress in some quarters with regard to research, such as under the auspices of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Many governments are also increasingly supportive of education and research programs, including on key populations.
Having set the stage thus, the pre-conference continued with two panel discussions, one on people who use drugs and harm reduction and another on sexual transmission and marginalized groups.
These were followed by two more presentations by people from UNAIDS. Sally Smith, Civil Society Partnerships Adviser (Faith), positioned faith-based approaches to HIV work within the broader socio-cultural landscape of the HIV epidemic within the broader socio-cultural landscape of the HIV epidemic. Renu Chahil-Graf, Regional Director of Middle East and North Africa, laid out the challenges of working in the region, such as lack of political leadership and stigma and discrimination towards key populations, but reminded the participants that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) governments made commitments in the 2011 Political Declaration at the UN General Assembly.
After these, participants broke out into three groups discussing issues around women and gender, drug use and gay men and other MSM, specifically on challenges and successes in research and program delivery, ways forward and specific recommendations to a steering committee.
Rapporteurs from the three groups then presented the results to the plenary, including the following points:
There are diverse Islamic settings between regions, countries and even within countries. This corroborates one of the initial presentations, which presents Islam not as a monolith.
One must find creative ways of working on research and program delivery: public health, human rights, invoking history and reinterpreting the texts.
Religion poses a challenge when it is used in power politics.
Such meetings must be sustained in further meetings and collaborative programs in the future.
In future meetings, more clerics need to be involved, i.e. not only researchers, public health doctors and community activists. We also need to involve more stakeholders who may not completely agree with the more moderate, liberal parties.
In addition to taking part actively in the pre-conference, APCOM disseminated its discussion paper on Islam, sexual diversity and access to health services, which fits in nicely with the theme of the event. APCOM also facilitated the breakout groups on women and gender and gay men and other MSM.