Friday, December 21, 2007

At Hajj After Giving Up the Needle; Saudi Addicts Organize Group to Attend Hajj

From Arab News

At Hajj After Giving Up the Needle
Samir Al-Saadi, Arab News

Former addicts performing Haj under the National Anti-Drug Committee's rehabilitation program rest in their camp in Mina on Thursday.
(AN photo by Marwan Al-Juhani)

MINA, 21 December 2007 — Rehabilitation does not end by giving up the needle. The National Anti-Drug Committee's rehabilitation program, powered by the fifth pillar of Islam, took the extra mile to shed light into the futures of 200 people shattered by a dark past.

From 320 applicants, the committee accepted 200 former addicts and drug dealers to perform Haj this year. The program aims to support them in order to live normal lives without returning to their past addictions, said Abdelilah Al-Sharif, adviser to the committee and head of the Haj mission.

"What better means in opening a clean sheet than by performing Haj?" he said. "This is among a series of programs supervised by the committee to ensure achieving our set goal."

Since the beginning of the program eight years back, 1,250 former addicts have made use of the 12-step program. Of the 1,250 people who performed Haj, only 20 have returned to drugs, said Sharif.

"We have terms to accept applications: first they need to show that they have their mind set on leaving drugs for good, and, secondly, the applicant needs to integrate into the committee's programs."

Sami Al-Matrafi, a former drug addict who currently has devoted his life to helping other addicts in changing their lives, said that he had been an addict for 24 years of his life. "My past experience brings me close to the people on the program, as I have lived their experience," he said.

He described the first and last days of addiction as the hardest on him. "I lived a harsh experience; I feel that I am capable of making up for those years through my current work in helping other addicts," he said. "I have turned from a man with a bad reputation to a person that is currently respected by others."

The self-support program that is provided by the national committee for combating drugs comprises 12 steps with a time frame of between three months and two years depending on the case. The program is available through 13 of the committee's centers scattered across the Kingdom.

Hajj Barbers Pose Risk of STIs: Shaving-Transmitted Infections

From Arab News

Syed Faisal Ali, Arab News

MINA, 21 December 2007 — Wandering barbers were seen — as they are seen every year — roaming around the Jamrat complex with razors in hands, ready to shave pilgrims for a negotiated price. However, the price might turn out to be very high in terms of hygiene, as they usually ignore the Ministry of Health's recommendations.

These inexperienced and nonprofessional seasonal barbers were openly ignoring basic health regulations right under the nose of security officials. And the pilgrims didn't seem to pay too much attention either, flocking to these men to have their heads shaved after performing the stoning-the-devil ritual on the massive, multistory Jamrat overpass.

One of the biggest hygienic risks involved with this practice are barbers — seeking to save a little money — using the same blades on different people. Blades can create nicks, nicks can bleed, blood can contain viruses and viruses can be transferred from one nick to another: from an infected person to a non-infected person.

Though the AIDS virus can be transmitted in this manner, the transmission of AIDS is not the biggest concern here. The biggest concern is hepatitis, a far more prevalent, infectious and equally incurable virus. This is a virus that health officials the world over fear could cause a global pandemic someday. This is an infection that eventually leads to liver failure and death of its victims. And it also happens to be a virus that is found in greater numbers of people from some countries that send pilgrims to Haj, people that may not even be aware that they are carrying the virus because they haven't yet been struck with symptoms.

The Ministry of Health has opened barbershops at many places in Mina through contractors, with sitting space of around 200 each, but they are not sufficient to cater to the well-over two million pilgrims that came for Haj this year. Because of the great demand, the trade of unregulated, seasonal barbers flourishes.

Regulated barbers have been trained to use one razor blade per person, but seasonal barbers (who also often charge half the going rate of SR10) may not even be aware of the risks they are taking with public health.

Doctors are rightfully outraged. Not only are some of these barbers using the same blade on multiple customers, but in the mad rush to shave heads and make as much money as possible, the risk of razor nicks (and therefore transmission of blood-borne infections like hepatitis and HIV) is greater.

"Since they do their job in a hurry they cause bleeding to pilgrims. Then from the same razor they shave another guy and put him at risk of contracting some deadly disease through blood contact," said Dr. Naseem Ahmad.

Some pilgrims are also not happy. "Yes, I know I should not use the services of these guys," said Nafees Ahmad, a Jeddah-based Indian executive. "But I wanted to come out of ihram after stoning the Jamrat. I got my head shaved by these people and left everything at the mercy of the Almighty."

An Indian journalist, Arshad Faridi, suggested that the Health Ministry consider finding a way to educate these men and encourage them to be safe even if what they're doing is illegal.

"Demand for barbers at Mina is very high and it can't be met through government agencies," said Faridi. "And so these people come into the scene. Of course, their main aim is to make quick money, but if they were trained properly and instructed to use standard shaving kits that would help greatly."

Saleh Abdur Rahman, a spokesman for the municipality, initially declined to comment but later said that the task of monitoring these barbers was formidable. "It's not possible to man every inch of space in Mina," he said. "Our patrolling teams are on the ground in Mina, particularly in the Jamrat area, and when officers see them, these 'seasonal barbers' just vanish into the crowd."

So perhaps this serves as a warning to pilgrims. Next year: Consider bringing your own razor blade in your check-in luggage.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

AFRICA: Odds stacked against HIV-positive Muslim women

From Plus News

Photo: Lilian Liang/PlusNews
Sabrina Salim, a HIV+ Muslim woman, who was infected in a blood transfusion.
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.
Sabrina Salim, 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 Salim 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

Photo: Lilian Liang/PlusNews
Heldina Irayanti and Yulis Adam.
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."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"I tell people I have HIV so they can know it's real"

SUDAN: Angelina Lino: "I tell people I have HIV so they can know it's real"

Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN
I found it hard to believe I was HIV positive; I had only ever been with one man.
JUBA, 10 December 2007 (PlusNews) - Angelina Lino, 23, works as a volunteer at People Living with AIDS in Southern Sudan (PLASS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Juba, the provincial capital. A trained mechanic and driver, she discovered that she was HIV-positive in March 2007 and declared her status in an effort to keep more young people from contracting the virus. She shared her story with IRIN/PlusNews.

"I am the last-born and was only three months old when my parents separated. Mum tilled other people's land to provide for nine siblings and me. It was during the war, and it was very hard for her to put food on the table and pay school fees.

"I was still in school when I met him. He worked for an international NGO based in Yambio, my hometown [close to Sudan's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo]. The neighbourhood children fetched water from a borehole in his compound, so everyone knew him. He was a senior officer [in the Sudan People's Liberation Army] and drove around in this big [Toyota] Land Cruiser.

"He must have heard about my situation, so he sent people to me asking that I visit him. When I inquired of his intentions they all said he was a good man, willing to help and to pay my school fees.

"For about a month I resisted his advances - I was 15 and uninterested in men - but one evening he dispatched his driver and security guard, I sneaked out, hopped into the Land Cruiser and in minutes was dropped off at his place.

"He was happy to see me; he excitedly told me many things - that he loved me and wanted to pay my school fees. He took me to his bed saying, 'Do not fear, I will be your father and mother, and will take care of you.' He promised to meet Dad the following day to announce that he is my boyfriend.

"We had sex. It was my first time and very painful. I did not enjoy it but figured that God had found me a caring man to love and see me through school.

"He kept his word and met my family. I moved in with him. He paid my school fees balance in Yambio and also paid for my secondary school in Arua, northwestern Uganda.

"He even bought me a plot in Yambio and built me a two-roomed brick house. I was happy. During one of the school holidays, he brought me a gift - a small Toyota Corolla. We were a happy couple and I felt I had all that I needed.

"The next school holiday I went home [from Arua] to find he had been transferred to Nairobi. He sounded a different man. He said he would continue paying my school fees but would never come back to Yambio. I was devastated.

"2003 was the last time we talked. Later, I tried calling and e-mailing him, but it was in vain. Reality sank in painfully in March this year when I suffered a bout of tuberculosis, fever and malaria. The doctor suggested I take an HIV test. I never felt alarmed - after all, I had only known one man.

"The news that I was HIV-positive was hard to believe. The doctor at Mulago Hospital [in the Ugandan capital, Kampala] admitted me for a month and put me on antiretrovirals (ARVs) - he said my CD-4 count [which measures the strength of the immune system] was very low.

"Recently, in Juba, I met my ex-boyfriend's best friend and former workmate at Yambio. He confirmed that my ex-boyfriend had all along known his status and was on ARV treatment. He was previously married, before we met. In fact, he had lost his wife and two children to HIV-related complications.

"I felt cheated and naïve that I had had sex without protection. I was young and knew nothing about condoms or HIV/AIDS. I feel betrayed by the only boyfriend I ever had. He infected me knowingly, and I will never forgive him.

"My people in South Sudan know very little about HIV/AIDS, its transmission and prevention. Some associate it with witchcraft. That is why I have gone public about my status, telling them 'HIV is real'.

"I visit hot spots like discos and bars, and talk to vulnerable groups: prostitutes, soldiers, long-distance truckers, the 'senke' boys [motorcycle-taxi operators] and the youth. Some do not believe me and tease, 'A beautiful girl like you cannot be HIV-positive'.

"Ignorance and stigma are a bitter reality. A brother-in-law of mine refused to shake my hand or share utensils. My stepmother recently threw me out, telling off my dad for wasting money on a "girl who is dying very soon anyway".

"I have dreams. To go back to school, get into medical college and become a doctor. Most importantly, I want to live long.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Exposing the Downlow Myth: World AIDS Day Lecture Focuses on Black Bisexual Men

 " Indiana University World AIDS Day Lecture Focuses on Black Bisexual Men"
University Wire    (12.03.07):: Dae Woo Son, The Daily Student, Indiana University

The phenomenon of black men on the "down low," men who self-identify as heterosexual but engage in gay sex without telling their female partners, has received much attention from the media but is under-researched. That was the message delivered in a World AIDS Day lecture at Indiana University by Dr. David Malebranche, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

"I worked on a review of three databases looking at articles about bisexual black men and HIV risk. Over a span of 24 years, we found 24 articles and two conference abstracts that actually fit the criteria of what we were using, which is a little sad," said Malebranche, whose lecture was entitled "Black Bisexual Men and HIV: Time to Think Deeper."

The degree to which "down low" men transmit HIV to their female partners is unknown, Malebranche said. Yet despite this fact, the men are widely blamed for rising HIV infections among black women. "No one really explains the story of what this man actually went through or what was going on in his world when he contracted HIV. All the black man is, is a vector of disease. He's treated like a mosquito that flies around and infects people," he said.

The available research focusing on "down low" men paints a decidedly mixed picture, according to Malebranche. A Chicago study found that men who hid their bisexuality were more likely to use condoms for anal sex and less likely to be HIV-infected. A Dallas-based study found the opposite. A study based in Atlanta found that sexual identity had no bearing on risky sexual activity.

Malebranche is currently conducting his own two-year study on the topic.

GLOBAL: Imams wake up to HIV/AIDS

GLOBAL: Imams wake up to HIV/AIDS

Photo: Lilian Liang/PlusNews
South African Riana Jacobs, 31, has been HIV-positive for the last 10 years
JOHANNESBURG, 7 December 2007 (PlusNews) - In her bright orange clothing, South African Riana Jacobs, 31, stands out from the crowd at the recent International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa.

She has been HIV-positive for the last 10 years and is not intimidated by the audience of Muslim religious and academic leaders, mostly men. When she declared her status in 2004, compassion from her religious leaders was hard to come by.

"People accept it when it's not their problem," she said. "But leaders don't want to see that seroprevalence is increasing among Muslims."

This picture of intolerance is slowly changing as more initiatives throughout the world educate imams - Muslim religious leaders - about HIV and AIDS, so that they can teach their congregations.

"The imams are more effective than television or the radio in certain areas because of their authority and influence ... imagine the impact if all imams dedicate time in their sermons to talk about HIV," remarked IRW president Dr Hany El Bana at last week's meeting.

According to UNAIDS, although prevalence in Islamic communities is relatively low, it is growing in countries like Algeria, Iran, Libya and Morocco.

In Mozambique, where a quarter of the population is Muslim, 19.8 percent of the adult population is living with the virus; in Guinea Bissau, where 4 in 10 of the country's 1.4 million inhabitants follow the Islamic religion, the national seroprevalence rate is 3.8 percent.

Data from the National AIDS Commission in Indonesia - the world's most populous Islamic country, with 225 million inhabitants - show that HIV cases have been reported in almost all its 33 provinces, mainly among intravenous drugs users.

Allah Yar Qadri, once an imam and now a consultant on community development, HIV/AIDS and Islamic issues in Malawi, warned that imams could not afford to distance themselves from the issue. "If the imams remain silent, others will take the lead and speak to our communities, but far from Islamic principles."

Do female condoms exist?

In Muslim communities, HIV has been associated with infidelity or promiscuous behaviour, so many people have viewed infection as a well-deserved divine punishment, but this perception is slowly being replaced by a more tolerant attitude.

An effective change in mentality would require not only education about the pandemic, but also more information on sex and risky behaviour, which scholars do not always have. "I'm sorry, but do female condoms exist?" asked Amna Nosseir, a specialist in Islamic philosophy who hosts a television programme in Egypt.

Photo: Lilian Liang/PlusNews
Sheikh Mohamed Bashir Joaque

To a certain extent the lack of knowledge can be traced back to the madrassas (Islamic schools), which are reluctant to deal with more current themes. "The curriculum in the madrassas needs to be revised," Qadri said. "Islam is a religion in progress, so it's necessary to incorporate contemporary aspects into curricula, and sex is an important chapter of the Quran."

Economic factors also matter. In Malawi, for example, many imams are contracted by a committee of community businessmen, so they may not always be able to preach about what they see as most pertinent. "If the imam talks about HIV and AIDS without the committee's approval, the next day he could lose his job," Qadri explained.

Back to school

Some Islamic countries are solving the problem by educating imams about HIV/AIDS. Sheikh Mohamed Bashir Joaque, who was born in Sierra Leone and lives in the United Kingdom, is part of the African Muslim Communities Campaigns Against HIV/AIDS initiative, and the growing success of his courses in London have led to the creation of a manual on HIV/AIDS for religious leaders.

He says the secret is to transmit information gradually, from an Islamic perspective. "We need to adapt. We don't start talking about condoms right from the beginning. We emphasise that the best thing is still abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage," he explained.

"But we also say that we're all human and can all have moral lapses, and if this happens, condoms should be used. If we're too direct, they leave."


ositive fatwas - using religious rulings in the AIDS struggle

Photo: Mercedes Sayagues/PlusNews
Compassion and action - Muslim response to HIV and AIDS
GLOBAL: Positive fatwas - using religious rulings in the AIDS struggle

JOHANNESBURG, 6 December 2007 (PlusNews) - To most Westerners, a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, evokes the imposition of a death sentence on author Salman Rushdie and the wearing of head-to-toe coverings, or burkas, on women.

Yet fatwas can also be progressive and bring widespread change. Issued by respected Islamic scholars known as ulama, fatwas are guidelines for the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, which numbers between 1.3 and 1.5 billion people, according to the CIA Factbook.

The draft text of several progressive fatwas were discussed last week by the ulama at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa.

One fatwa would approve the use of funds from the zakat (mandatory alms giving) for HIV-positive people, whether Muslims or non-Muslim, regardless of how they contracted the virus, as long as they are poor.

Another fatwa would approve the use of condoms by married discordant couples, where one is HIV-positive and the other is not, to avoid infection.

The findings are not final. As first-opinions, they will be discussed next year at regional and national consultations.

"These are two [potentially] revolutionary rulings here," said Dr Ashgar Ali Engineer, chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, in Mumbai, India.

The use of condoms has long been a divisive issue in the Islamic response to AIDS. Muslim teachings condemn sex before or outside marriage, and reject condoms for both safer sex and family planning.

Yet the views on condoms were not unanimous: "A condom is a necessity sometimes," said Bangladeshi sheik Abul kalam Azad. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend. HIV is an enemy. The condom is the enemy of HIV. If we can save lives with a condom, let discordant couples use it."

Impact on the ground

For charities like IRW, if these opinions become rulings, "we can formulate programmes based on this advice", said Makki Abdelnabi Mohamed Hamid, a Sudanese agriculturalist and head of the Africa region at IRW.

Photo: Mercedes Sayagues/PlusNews
Sheik Abul Kalam Azad - condoms are an enemy of HIV
On the ground, the fatwas might smooth operations. "If we are working, say, in Somalia, we can show these fatwas and not be obstructed by local religious leaders," added Hamid.

Zakat, mandated at two percent of an individual's accumulated wealth above a certain threshold, mobilises large amounts of money that could go towards HIV and AIDS work. "People and institutions may now feel comfortable giving money for HIV and AIDS," said Hamid.

So far, the Muslim response to the pandemic has been dogged by "the prejudiced association of the disease with moral depravity", said Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, because the virus is transmitted, among other ways, through illicit sex and injecting drug use, which reinforced its link to sinful behaviour.

Muslims accord great importance to the Islamic holy book, the Qu´ran, and its explanatory notes, the hadith. "AIDS and condoms did not exist at that time. We are faced with new challenges and we need new fatwas to deal with new issues," said Hamid.

The unworldliness of many scholars compounds the problem. "Some religious leaders are not exposed to the real world. We, humanitarian workers, we listen to people's stories," Hamid added.

'' Muslim NGOs have low visibility yet they are doing extraordinary work. Like Christian groups 20 years ago, they are too busy working to attend international conferences and brag about it''
Being informed about HIV and AIDS also helps. "A human being is an enemy of what he does not know. We need scholars to understand all aspects of HIV and AIDS and try to find suitable rulings," said Lina Al-Homri, a doctor of Sharia (Muslim religious law) in the Faculty of Dawa (Muslim missionary work) in Damascus, Syria, and one of two woman scholars who helped draft the fatwas.

Dr Ikram Bux, a South African physician and HIV/AIDS specialist working in the east-coast city of Durban, shared his view. "On HIV-related fatwas, the ulama should have advisers who are experts on the epidemic," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Linking science and religion was the keystone of Senegal's response to AIDS, praised as a model by UNAIDS. As early as 1987, when African governments, with the exception of Uganda, were silent about the disease, Senegalese scientists, epidemiologists and health authorities - all Muslim - met with the traditional Islamic leadership to explain the new disease from a scientific, not moral, perspective.

As a result, imams across the West African nation of 12 million were mobilised to send clear messages on prevention and transmission 20 years ago. Today, many Muslim countries and communities have well-established and creative programmes to deal with the pandemic, ranging from assistance for intravenous drug users in Iran and Indonesia to family planning in Afghanistan and street children in Zambia.

Calle Almedal, a senior consultant to UNAIDS and a specialist on community responses to AIDS, was impressed by the variety and quality of work presented at the consultation.

"Muslim NGOs [non-governmental organisations] have low visibility yet they are doing extraordinary work. Like Christian groups 20 years ago, they are too busy working to attend international conferences and brag about it," he told IRIN/PlusNews.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gay Muslim Outs Himself to Muslim Scholars at HIV/AIDS Conference

Doors of tolerance start to open for gay Muslims?

JOHANNESBURG, December 3, 2007 (PlusNews) – Suhail AbualSameed looked calm, yet he was shaking inside. He was seated before a row of ulama,
distinguished Islamic scholars, from Afghanistan to Yemen at the International Consultation on Islam and HIV/AIDS, organised by the charity,
Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week.

The previous day, several of them had denounced homosexuality as un-Islamic
and evil.

Today, AbualSameed had something to tell them.

"As a gay Muslim, I feel unsafe, unloved and unrespected in this space," he

"Were I to become HIV-positive, the first thing I would lose is my Muslim
community. I couldn't come to you guys for support."

You could cut the tension the room with a knife.

AbualSameed continued: "I wish you did not refer to gays with the (Arabic)
words 'shaz' and 'luti' – perverts and rapists – because we are not."

Two men in keffiyas, the gingham headcloth worn by men in many Muslim
countries, waved their arms to silence him but the chairman nodded for him
to continue.

Spellbound, the audience listened as AbualSameed, a Jordanian living in
Canada, did the unthinkable: outing himself.

The groundbreaking consultation brought together Muslim community leaders,
academics, doctors, relief workers and HIV-positive activists to rethink the
Islamic response to HIV and AIDS.  One key issue was HIV prevention among
hard-to-reach vulnerable groups like sex workers, street children, injecting
drug users, and men who have sex with men.

Jaffer Inamdar, the HIV-positive founder and programme manager of the
Positive Lives Foundation in Goa, India, told IRIN/PlusNews: "Lots of sex,
drugs and gay activity take place during the high season from September to
April in this popular tourist destination.  Harsh, condemning language make
them [gays] run away, hide and continue to spread HIV."

Anti-gay laws

Homosexuality is forbidden and considered a crime in most Islamic countries.
Six officially Islamic countries (Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, United
Arab Emirates, Yemen, and the 12 northern states of Nigeria) invoke sharia –
Islamic religious law – and maintain the death penalty for consensual
same-sex sex, according to human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Other countries punish homosexuality with fines, jail or lashes, coupled
with social stigma and blaming Western culture for introducing gay

Not surprisingly, AbualSameed was fearful.

"I saw their gaze, their body attitude, and my memory told me there could be
a physical reaction," he said.

But he had nothing to fear.

"Afterwards, veiled women, bearded men, the most religious types, came to me
and apologised if they had said something offensive, if they had made me
feel unloved or unsafe."

Each friendly gesture signalled belonging.

"This is us: our culture is intimate, warm, based on relationships.  When I
outed to my family, they did not turn on me," a relieved AbualSameed told

The following morning, the ulama had a surprise.

Conference spokesperson and IRW head of policy Willem van Eekelen read their
collective statement, saying that although Islam does not accept
homosexuality, Islamic leaders would try to help create an environment in
which gay people could approach social workers and find help against AIDS
without feeling unsafe.

"This first time ever that a high-level religious forum has talked,
acknowledged and accepted gays," said AbualSameed.

"This will open the door to talks with the Muslim gay community and help
other gay Muslims to come out in a safer space."

To see theologians from Egyptian and Syrian universities, and imams – Muslim
community leaders – from India, Sudan and Pakistan defy official Islamic
homophobia is "definitively a first," said sheikh Abul Kalam Azad, chairman
of the Masjid (mosque) Council for Community Advancement, in Bangladesh.

"Homosexuality is a sin but we should not be cruel.  They [gays] suffer a
lot in the Muslim world."

Inamdar welcomed the statement.

"There are many gays in my group [in Goa].   Islam says it is a sin and we
have to follow Islamic rulings, but we are all human and deserve respect."

An unlikely ally for gay rights turned out to be Sudanese sheikh Mohamed
Hashim Alhakim, dressed in a white robe with gold trimmings and a white
turban, and his wife, clad in a black hijab, with their baby just behind

Alkahim runs the S-Smart Training and Consultancy Centre in Khartoum, which
also runs AIDS awareness programmes.

"I used to be very hard against homosexuals and sex workers," he said.  "But
I learned to respect their humanity.  I advise them to change, but if they
are going to continue they must practice safe sex so they don't harm
themselves and their partners."

Evil ways

During the weeklong consultation, AbualSameed, who is coordinator of the
Newcomer/Immigrant Youth Programme at the Sherbourne Health Centre in
Toronto, had endured homophobic statements.

Just the day before, one scholar had ranked homosexuality with bestiality
and adultery as evils to avoid.

"The harshness of the comments made me passionate; I had to do something for
my own identity and dignity, and of other gay Muslims," said AbualSameed.

His decision to speak out was nurtured in his conference working group, made
up of Muslims from Iran, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.

South African psychologist Sabra Desai spoke about care and solidarity, and
recalled the Prophet's words: "'If one part of my body hurts, my whole body
hurts'," she said. "I take this to mean that if one member of my community
hurts, we all hurt."

Then she squeezed AbualSameed's hand under the table and passed him the

Slowly, he started: "As a Gay Muslim …".

And with every word, the doors of tolerance opened wider.

(c) 2007 IRIN/PlusNews, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  The opinions expressed
do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.

Worlds AIDS Day in Muslim Countries