"How did you get involved with AIDS work?" I asked a muhajiba in the prayer room of the International Conference on AIDS. "I'm positive," was her response. I thought that I did not hear her properly. "Positive?" About what?
This Nigerian sister's own words are powerful. Her name was Agbaje. She traced for me the pivotal moments in her life and her encounter with the virus. She grew up as the daughter of an imam and fell in love with a man whom she later married. After two daughters of her own, she learned in 1999 that she had HIV. Her husband had infected her, but the family (including her husband) accused her of wicked charms that brought the disease. In the final days of her husband's life, he even prohibited her from visiting him.
After soul-searching, she began a new chapter in her life. "I did not stigmatize myself. Because of my faith, I was able to survive," she says. Her father welcomed her back with open arms. It was not long afterwards that he encouraged her to remarry and introduced her to suitors. Agbaje made her status clear and said that she was not interested in having more children. An HIV negative man asked for her hand in marriage.
A couple of years later, despite the couple's use of condoms, she developed what was diagnosed as a cyst. "Let's check to see if you are pregnant," insisted the doctor, but Agbaje was adamant that she was not. Another month passed and then the doctor again insisted that they check. Agbaje refused until he said, "Don't you have faith in Allah (swt)?" The results of the scan came back: she was three months pregnant. In 2008, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Both baby and father remain HIV negative.
I knew that Muslims around the world over had a phenomenal impact in turning the tide on the impact of AIDS. A Muslim husband and wife dynamic duo, Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim, have led the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and authored the book, HIV/AIDS in South Africa, with a forward by Nelson Mandela. Fareed Abdullah runs SANAC, the South National AIDS Council, which coordinates the country's response to HIV, AIDS, TB, and STIs. Washington DC's HIV infection rate is often compared to that of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Director of the Department of Health, Muhammad Akhter, has achieved some dramatic results in this city. Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer is at the forefront of helping her fellow Philadelphians fight the stigma of AIDS, get tested and treated.
What I did not know was the face of HIV in the Muslim community. At the AIDS 2012 conference in DC in July, I had the pleasure of meeting some positive individuals who are beacons of hope and inspiration for vulnerable populations. From Philadelphia, Waheedah Shabazz-El, 57, is a founding and advisory member of the U.S. Positive Women's Network.
Her HIV story starts in 2003 when she learned her status while serving a prison sentence for drugs. Her husband, blind from AIDS complications, infected her. Setbacks in life could have pushed Waheedah over the edge. Instead, a particular hadith pushed her to persevere. She paraphrases, "Any believer who suffers or pricks a finger on a thorn of a rose -- indeed, a sin is expiated." Since her diagnosis, Waheedah has been an HIV counselor and tester and served on numerous organizations to fight the spread of the virus. In the last International Conference on AIDS in Vienna, Waheedah offered the closing speech.
On the Metro ride home from the Conference, I thumbed through Kay Warren's memoir, Dangerous Surrender, in which she chronicles her AIDS activism with Saddleback Church. On the first page of the book she says, "Someone once asked me to define Christianity in one sentence, and after some reflection, I responded, "It all boils down to surrender." I feel the same about Islam. No one would have faulted Agbaje and Waheedah for surrendering to their HIV status, but instead they persevered, becoming activists in their own right -- driven by their surrender to God. We all need to see the faces behind this infection and play our role in supporting these amazing individuals, by dropping our preconceived notions, increasing our awareness, and helping the cause in any way we can.