Fighting Aids In A Muslim Land...

It's tough to teach people about AIDS when you can't talk about sex. That's one lesson Islamic scholar and AIDS activist Mehrun Siraj learned when visiting Malaysia's rural health clinics. Nurses told her about distraught local women who got pregnant after following the clinic's advice on condom usage literally: The husband always wore a condom on his thumb during sex, just like the nurse had shown during a demonstration. She never said where to put the condom for fear of violating Islamic mores.

That kind of failure to communicate is one of the Islamic world's biggest barriers to fighting AIDS and HIV infection. From Morocco to Malaysia, HIV infection is surging, mainly because of unprotected heterosexual sex. Indonesia, for example, by 2000 faces a projected 2.5 million cases out of a population of 195 million, according to government health officials. But many Islamic governments refuse to admit they have a problem at all. Those that do won't discuss solutions openly for fear of encouraging promiscuity. The resulting abysmal ignorance fuels the epidemic. "Girls don't know how they get pregnant, and people think you can catch AIDS from a spoon," says Indra K. Nadchatram, executive director of the Malaysian AIDS Council, a nongovernment organization.

Mehrun, a diminutive former law professor at the University of Malaya who is in her early 50s, aims to do something about that. Clad in traditional Islamic garb that covers everything but her face, she tells me her belief in sex ed was inspired by her mother's work as a family planning volunteer in Singapore, where Mehrun grew up. "Knowledge discourages promiscuity. Early sex education helped me choose to remain a virgin until marriage," she says. Three years ago, she left the university to work for the U.N. Development Program's Asia Pacific Project on AIDS.

Malaysia needs any help she and her colleagues can provide. In the three years since the Malaysian AIDS Council was founded, reported cases of HIV infection in the country have jumped from 2,400 to 12,000 in a population of 19 million, says Indra. The World Health Organization figures the actual number of people infected is 128,000. With the help of a high-profile chairperson, Marina Mahathir, daughter of the Prime Minister, the council aims to educate Malaysians about everything from basic anatomy to exactly how HIV is transmitted.

RED CIRCLES. One obstacle is the government's own $800,000 anti-AIDS advertising campaign, which council officials think is dangerously ambiguous. It features four pictures surrounded by red circles with lines through them. One of the pictures shows a woman nursing her baby. "What does that mean?" asks Indra. "That a mother shouldn't breast-feed?" The intended meaning is that HIV-positive mothers shouldn't nurse.

Instead, the council is sponsoring a series of clearer and cheaper AIDS programs. A 13-week, nationwide radio show will include skits on how to persuade a husband to wear a condom. Of course, the Board of Censors won't let the actors say "condom" on the show, and Indra fears that rural women won't know the word "prophylactic."

Mehrun thinks she has a solution: She wants to use the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) to convince governments that being vague about AIDS education is un-Islamic. Mehrun says the Prophet Mohamad was frank about sex and menstruation. "By analogy," she says, "if the Prophet is specific in what he teaches, why can't we be specific?"

Many of Malaysia's religious scholars agree with Mehrun. In meetings, she says, they quote phrases from scripture that support education about AIDS. Mehrun hopes to spread the message to other countries such as Pakistan, where she does work for the UNDP.

Some might think her mission quixotic. After all, Pakistan is home to a strong fundamentalist opposition movement that says family planning is a Western plot to limit Muslim reproduction. Women are still stoned for adultery in tribal areas near the Afghan border. But Mehrun is convinced she can succeed by speaking to clergy in their own terms: "International human rights don't make sense to a local religious leader. You have to talk about what is right in Islam to get to them."

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