Progressio have worked in a number of communities in Yemen to lessen discrimination often felt by those with HIV. This moving extract tells of Sheik Abdulla El Qadesi’s transformed attitude towards sufferers of the illness after learning more about HIV. After taking this journey, he is encouraged to work towards combating the prejudices he had previously held.
At the beginning of this year, if you mentioned ‘Yemen’ to anyone you were likely to provoke a hostile and suspicious reaction. There was a lot of negative publicity prompted by the Nigerian student who on Christmas Day tried to blow up a plane from Yemen to Detoit in another potential jihadist atrocity. Three months on, I’d say that Mr. Mutallab has done the Yemenis a favour. Development projects, particularly on governance and health issues are receiving a boost of much needed funds, as both western countries as well as Yemen’s wealthier Arab neighbours are realising that investment now could avert worse problems later.
Progressio is used to good news stories from Yemen – we’ve been working there since 1974 and have seen encouraging progress in a number of fields. Take HIV and AIDs, for example. Though official figures are not available, prevalence is still estimated at under 2%, which means that good prevention work needs to be done now. We have been partnering with a number of Yemeni organisations in Taiz, Aden, Hodeidah and Sana’a to raise awareness of the pandemic, to spread information about prevention, encourage anti stigma and discrimination messages, and promote care and support of those living with the virus. Key allies in the fight against stigma have come from what some would consider an unlikely source – the nation’s Imams – or Muslim preachers.
On a recent visit to Yemen, I went to interview Sheik Abdulla Mohammed El Qadesi to find out how, through attending trainings organised by Progressio and our partner organisation, Interaction in Development, in Sana’a, the Imam had completely changed his mind about HIV and AIDS and those living with the virus. He agreed to meet me at the Sana’a based Ministry of Endowments – a huge building on the perimeter of the old city. I was struck as we climbed to the fifth floor, by the almost total absence of women. We weaved our way through the crowds of traditionally attired men, with their Muslim robes, head-dresses and traditional swords tucked into their belts. There was no mistaking the macho culture, and I found it a bit un-nerving.
The Sheik arrived, turbaned and smiling, with a fellow Imam friend, Imam Adel in tow who had been heavily influenced by his teaching. He’d had conservative views on HIV and AIDs, he explained, and whenever the subject came up in the media, he’d denounce the immorality of those infected, believing it always to be a consequence of sexual sin, and that he would exhort their banishment from society. HIV infection he saw as punishment from Allah, and he warned his friends from frequenting either Western countries or Africa – the main countries where it is rife.
I was struck by Sheik Abdulla’s honesty. It is probably his honesty and intellectual rigour which has enabled him to look again. He explained that though he felt his mind was made up, a healthy habit of wanting to back up his teaching with reliable and correct data led him to attend quite a number of workshops organised by both Progressio and other organisations. The more he learned, the more he felt compelled to read and corroborate what he was hearing, and the more he read the more he realised with some horror, the damage he had been doing and the responsibility he bore to correct his teaching.
‘I honestly had doubts about some of these workshops’, he admitted. ‘Especially those run by westerners and I wondered whether I could trust what they had to say. I was slow to believe that their information could hold any truth and persuade me’. It seemed strange to me that I could learn something useful from such people’.
Nevertheless, after Sheik Abdulla had participated in some of the workshops, he did find that his understanding changed and as his views started to be seriously challenged, they gradually began to vanish. ‘I read everything I could find’, he explained. ‘I collected as much data as I could and tried to verify what had been given to me. I realised it was all based on solid research and could, after all, be trusted’.
But the clincher for Sheik Abdulla was actually meeting people living with HIV and AIDs. ‘Once I had got to know people actually affected by the disease, I totally changed my mind. And I started doing the exact opposite of what I had been doing before’. Instead of ostracising PLHIVs he now encourages the Muslim community to make a place for them. ‘I am no longer afraid of them. I now know we can co-exist, share with and live alongside them’.
Sheik Abdulla doesn’t only focus on giving sermons in mosques. He has engaged with the media, appeared in TV and Radio programmes, written articles, lectured students. Even when he goes to the barbershop, he talks to the barbers about how they can help to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
I asked him how many Imams he had brought along with him. ‘I am still debating with them’ he said. Some have changed, but many have not yet made the journey. They still stick with the old ideas’, he noted regretfully. (Progressio has trained 37 Imams in Sana’a and many more in Hodeidah, Taiz and Aden).
But Abdulla is convinced by the methodology. ‘If you reach an Imam, he can go on to reach another 2,000 people. Progressio needs to multiply the workshops and scale up the work. It’s much more effective than using just the media! People really listen to Imams in a way that they don’t take notice of with the media’.
Abdulla’s view was endorsed by his Imam friend Adel Qasam. Adel had also had conservative views on HIV and AIDs before Abdulla had talked him around and convinced them of the need to embrace the issue and AIDs affected people.
What turned Adel around particularly was the testimony of a man living with HIV and AIDs who spoke out in his mosque when Adel had given a sympathetic sermon. ‘He moved me to tears’, he confided.
I asked them what Islam has to offer those living with HIV and AIDS. ‘Our religion has many positive messages – too many to single out individual teachings’ says Sheik Abdulla. There are many positive verses which support the positive treatment of the sick, whatever their affliction. The ethics of Islam are completely supportive and help people to treat each other with dignity. Also the ethics of the Prophet (peace be upon him) offer a wide range of guidance. The key question is to get people to practise their religion, obey the Koran and the Hadiths instead of ignoring them whilst still claiming allegiance to Islam’.
I asked Abdulla what his hope was for the future for Yemenis living with AIDs. ‘It’s more than a hope’ he grinned. ‘It’s already becoming a reality. I am really seeing a change in society and in attitudes. More and more PLHIVs are coming out and declaring their status and they are being challenged and denounced less and less. Gradually disclosure is becoming normal’.
What do you have to say to those who would still stigmatise PLIVs? ‘I would say adhere to the teachings of Islam. ‘Do not mock the sick or the old’. Avoid judging people and thinking wrongly about people. I would refer them to all the Koranic verses which deal with discrimination’.
To those who are living with HIV and AIDs and are too afraid to say so, I would say ‘Do not be afraid – the Koran supports your cause and so do the Imams and preachers. And so does the state – there is now a law forbidding discrimination against PLHIVs!’
These two Yemeni Imams are clear that progress has been made. The way forward now is to go on encouraging their fellow Imams to give clear, unequivocal teaching, and to enforce the new law outlawing discrimination. It won’t mean that all stigma and discrimination will disappear tomorrow, but it will mean that standards of good behaviour can be held up for Yemeni society to emulate.
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