6 August 2009

South Africa: A Reluctant Heroine - Living With Aids

Faghmeda Miller has received several accolades, including Femina magazine's "Women of Courage" Award for her role in fighting discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS. But as we catch up with her on the eve of Women's Day, we discover a heroine that thinks very little about the accolades she has won.

Wearing a purple traditional Muslim head-scarf and a black ankle-length dress, Faghmeda Miller is a woman without airs and graces. Thirteen years ago, in 1996, she made history by disclosing that she was HIV-positive when her religious leaders, relatives and community prohibited her from doing so. No Muslim in South Africa had ever come out to say that they had HIV at that time. Although it drew mixed reactions from her community, that single act of defiance won her the hearts of those outside her Muslim faith. Looking back, Faghmeda smiles, and simply says that someone had to do it.

"Someone had to break that silence and I just thought I would be brave enough to do it", states Faghmeda Miller.

As a Muslim and a woman, Faghmeda was brave to reveal to her religious leaders or imams that she had HIV. But she did not want her HIV status to remain a secret between her and the imams. She needed to tell the entire Muslim community that she had HIV so that they could know that Muslims can also get HIV.

But that need was suppressed by the imams who, according to Faghmeda, told her that 'Muslims don't have HIV' and that 'HIV was a curse from God'. However, nothing they said would stop her from disclosing her status.

"That made me more determined to speak up. Once again, I will always stress that it's because of the stigma attached to it that I decided to come out", says Faghmeda.

The now 42 year-old Faghmeda disclosed her status on a community radio station in Cape Town two years after her diagnosis. She recalls that she was in a stable relationship when she contracted the virus.

"My late husband infected me. I only discovered after he passed away that I was infected with the HI-virus. What happened was I moved with my husband to another country, and after seven months of marriage my husband passed away. I was in a foreign country and I started to get ill. I then came back to South Africa and after about one month, it was discovered that my husband infected me with the virus", she says.

In 2000, almost four years after her disclosure, Faghmeda started the first care, support and awareness group for Muslims living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, Positive Muslims, which now caters for people of all faiths.

"That, really, I would say, did break the barrier between us and the religious leaders. There is a big difference between now and back then. But you must also remember that people will always discriminate against people living with HIV and AIDS. Even though I'm open about my own HIV status, and for such a long time, people still discriminate against me", Faghmeda points out.

The AIDS Consortium, a support organisation for a network of AIDS service groups has named Faghmeda it's hero of the month in its year-long awareness and stigma-reduction campaign using high-profile South Africans living well with HIV and AIDS.

"She comes from a society where women are seen to have less of a voice and the point that we really wanted to make resonating with Women's Month is that women like Faghmeda really remind us of the activism and they reignite that 'standing up' as women and 'speaking out' for what we believe in. It's women like Faghmeda who remind us of the spirit of activism ignited by those women who led the political and significant march on the 9th of August in 1956", said Rhulani Lehloka, the AIDS Consortium's Communications Manager.

But Faghmeda doesn't accept the title of hero or heroine quite easily.

"A lot of people look up to me as a role model. But I don't see myself as one. I'm just here for anyone that needs help and support", she says, matter-of-factly.

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