She leans back into the cream-coloured couch, her long legs stretched out before her, looking casually at ease. But her facial expression is guarded, her arms crossed; revealing a guarded woman who’s wary of trusting.
Laila*,a Muslim woman, is HIV-positive. She was infected by her husband. Her tall frame seems frail, covered by loose trousers and a billowing tunic shirt. Large blue eyes appear above sculpted cheekbones. On a gentle Sunday afternoon, she pours out years of abuse, acceptance and faith.
Aged 20, Laila fell in love, married the man she loved and fell pregnant almost immediately. A few months later, the couple discovered her husband was HIV-positive. At the time Laila tested HIV-negative, and her son, now 20, was born without the virus. It was 1991, a time when Aids was just starting to make the headlines, but not well, barely understood with massive stigma attached to be positive. Laila stood by him. “I loved him, I didn’t think his status mattered. I’m not a person to judge.” In denial, and refusing to see a doctor, her ex-husband became increasingly became angry at his situation, turning to alcohol, returning her love with physical abuse.
This continued for eight years, a period she recalls as one of harrowing pain and torture. There was one reprieve, -he always used a condom. Eventually, she couldn’t endure any more. They separated, with Laila taking out a restraining order against him. But one night he ignored it and. Laila’s life changed irrevocably. “He came into the house, and locked Yaseen*, (their son, 7 at the time) in the bedroom. He gave him Stopayne trying to knock him out. And then he came for me.” Laila relays the story calmly. Sitting next to her, Yaseen is equally calm. “That night he abused me senseless. It lasted for hours…he just kept hitting me. It was so bad I was in hospital for a week.” The violence was not confined to fists and kicks. After he beat her, he raped her.
“I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with this, where I’m coping well. I’ve gone through a long journey, faith has helped me through it.”
Four months later, Laila was diagnosed HIV-positive. She recalls taking it in her stride. “My fear of him was more than my fear of being infected. I had to break through my barrier of fear, the restraining order was the bravest thing I did. I was in denial that I was an abused woman.”
At that time, support organisations like Positive Muslims and the Muslim Aids Programme didn’t exist. Later Fagmieda Miller would establish Positive Muslims. Laila comes from a home where early on, she had to rely on herself. Her mother committed suicide when Laila was 16. Soon after, Laila converted to Islam. She says she turned to God for support. “No, there weren’t any support bases. But I didn’t need it. I’m a very independent person, I only need my Creator. My reliance on Him was enough for me to get where I am today.”
Today, Laila is a strong woman who is completely accepting of who she is. “I’m at a point where I’m comfortable with this, where I’m coping well. I’ve gone through a long journey, faith has helped me through it.”
She’s also a strong mother who has raised a well-mannered young man with whom she shares a remarkable bond. Two years ago, when Yaseen turned eighteen, Laila disclosed her status to him. “I suspected it, because I found strange meds were delivered to her every month even though she wasn’t sick. But it still came as a shock to be told”, he recalls. “I understand why she kept it hidden, I don’t think I would have coped at a younger age.”
Disclosing her status
Yaseen has told one close friend of his mother’s status, while Laila has confided in a small number of friends. One of those friends is someone she regards as a spiritual companion. “We met at a halaqa (religious study circle) and I just knew I could trust her. She’s been very understanding and supportive. I’ve been blessed with a good friend and a sheikh (spiritual mentor) who knows. I’m on a spiritual path now”, she murmurs serenely.
Eagerly, she shows off a room in her house, her sanctuary. A prayer rug lies open on the warmly carpeted floor. Arab-style floor seating lines one wall, frames with verses from the Quran adorn the walls, the Quran and other books take up a corner of the room. It exudes an air of peace and contentment.
“I try my best to live my life as a good Muslim. This is where I’ve found peace”, Laila explains. “This is where I feel accepted.” While Islam is accepting, not all Muslims are. “There are dribs and drabs of people whose attitudeshave changed, but humanity as a whole has a long way to go. People don’t have a deeper level of spirituality; they don’t know the true meaning of Islam.”
Although Laila is accepting of who she is, she’s wary of being labelled if she publicly declares her status. She’s also afraid Yaseen may suffer because of it. So she discloses her status only to those who she feels need to know. One is her second ex-husband. A friend of her first husband, Ahmed* knew his friend died of Aids. “He was very accepting when I told him I’m living with HIV. We were married for 3 years.” The marriage ended when his family discovered the truth. “They pressured him to divorce me, and eventually, he did.”
Laila married for a third time, to a Saudi Arabian. Here too, she was honest about her status. “But it didn’t work out”, she sighs. “Look, the man wasn’t who he said he was. I discovered he was a pathological liar, and he just wasn’t a good man. So I left.”
Her previous tarnished experiences have not sworn Laila off marriage. She says she’ll consider it if she meets a good man.
Although Laila is not ready to be a public champion for Muslims living with HIV, she wants to do this on a private level. Laila wants to start a support group for other Muslim women secretly living with HIV. “You have people counselling those living with HIV, but they aren’t positive. They haven’t experienced it, so how can they understand. People living with it, who’ve accepted it and are positive in their outlook, should be the ones running support groups.”
She is confident of her ability to be an influence on others. “Look, there is a way. It may sound like it was easy for me to deal with everything, but it wasn’t. It took me a few years, I went on personal transformation workshops, which were empowering. And I relied on my Creator to get me through. I didn’t allow my ex to destroy my life, and now I want to share my journey with others.”
I want to give hope to others. I could have been a victim or the victor. I chose the latter, and I have to say, I’m pretty awesome”, she notes with a cheeky grin.