Efforts Follow Men to the Mosques
Press Service - November 15, 2002
Qurratul Ain Tahmina
DHAKA, Nov 15 (IPS) - Spiritual affairs usually dominate the Friday
sermons of Maulana Athikur Rahman at a mosque here in
Bangladesh, but these days he touches on religion, life - and
risky sexual behaviour.
tell my congregation, 'Never engage in sex with any woman other than
your wife. Never engage in homosexual activities either', says Rahman,
an imam at a mosque on the outskirts of the capital in this country,
more than 90 percent of whose people are Muslim.
"As the Holy Koran says, both are strictly forbidden in Islam. Fifteen
hundred years ago, our Prophet had warned people of the deadly outcomes
of such acts," he adds.
"And then I explain to them how HIV is transmitted," he explains, "that
illicit sex is one of the main causes for getting this virus of which
there is no cure and death is inevitable. I also warn them about the
non-sexual routes of HIV transmission."
His remarks address risky behaviour patterns here, despite Bangladesh's
low level of HIV prevalence of 2 percent: considerably high premarital
and extramarital sex, high rates of clients and very low rate of condom
use in commercial sex.
Other factors for HIV/AIDS here are increasing intravenous drug abuse,
unscreened blood transfusion and above all, lack of awareness.
Government figures say there are only about 180 HIV-positive cases in
this country of 130-plus million people.
But experts say there is no room for complacency, which is why Athikur
Rahman was roped into HIV/AIDS training scheme he took six months ago at
the Imam Training Academy, an organ of the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh
(IFB) run by the government's ministry of religious affairs.
1998, the ITA added HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in its curriculum
and imams also discuss primary health care, reproductive health and
sexually transmitted diseases. Some 20,000 imams have received training
on HIV prevention in the light of Islam, ITA says.
"We believe the training has been extremely beneficial, as the imams
command credibility and respect in their communities," says Mohammad
Abadulla, ITA deputy director for training.
"They can reach the youth and make them aware of the danger. They can
persuade other opinion leaders," he adds. "Many people from villages go
abroad to work. Since sex is a biological demand, they may lose control
any time in a foreign country. The imams can caution them against the
dangers of that."
Having the imams target male behaviour is also an added bonus of this
programme -- except for a handful of city mosques, all the rest of the
some 200,000 mosques in the country are open only to men.
"They can easily overcome the social taboo against discussing HIV/AIDS
as they address a male-only congregation," says Syed Ashraf Ali, IFB
director general. "Besides, an imam addresses a familiar cohort, one
that he meets every week."
Imams are also encouraged to spread HIV awareness and prevention
messages at everyday prayers, regular 'waaz mahfils' or religious public
meetings they lead and weddings.
But HIV/AIDS activists point to limitations in the information religious
leaders give out. Athikur Rahman for instance touches on promiscuity and
morality, but leaves out condom use, which Islamic leaders say is wrong
but health activists find key to HIV/AIDS prevention.
do not talk about condoms," Athikur Rahman says, "because condom is only
needed when one engages in illicit sex outside wedlock or in homosexual
activity". Adds Abadulla: "We cannot promote condom for preventing HIV
from a religious point of view."
Athikur Rahman however asks his all-male congregation to pass on HIV
information and relevant religious restrictions to their female kin.
did not know much about AIDS before," says Taslima Akhter Swapna,
Athikur Rahman's wife. "After my husband got the training I learnt from
him how it spreads and how it doesn't. I now pass on the information to
other women. I tell them that they themselves should abide by religious
codes and try and make their husbands do the same."
Swapna agrees with her husband about not pushing condom use, but says:
"The problem is those who go bad way do not understand how wrong and
risky it is".
a society where a wife has little voice and far less negotiating power
even if she knows of safe sex, she is not likely to be in a position to
effect it if her husband goes 'bad way', activists say.
They agree that every means of giving information about HIV/AIDS is
important, but are uncomfortable with "religious restrictions" and moral
judgments that they say hinder efforts to fight the pandemic.
"We have found that if imams are convinced, they can very easily and
quickly convince others in our support. But we do not need to train them
only to repeat religious restrictions." says Dr Smarajit Jana of the
non-government group CARE, which runs the largest HIV prevention
programme in Bangladesh.
"The reality is that people do have polygamous behaviour," adds Dr Jana,
"and the majority of those who get HIV infection get it through the
"HIV prevention therefore cannot gain without promoting safe sex, of
which condom promotion is an essential factor. To be meaningful, any
such programme got to overcome the argument that promoting condom is
promoting immoral activity," Jana explains.
Maj Gen A S M Matiur Rahman, head of the National AIDS Committee who
teaches the ITA course on HIV/AIDS, is tactful while mentioning safe sex
and condoms to the imams.
"If one does get the virus, I tell them, then it is his or her
responsibility to protect his/her lawful partner. And for that condom is
the answer. I also ask them to convey this message to their
congregations," he explains.
Abbas Uddin, who runs the Islamic Research Cell of Family Planning
Association of Bangladesh and a former prayer leader, finds this
roundabout approach to safe sex useless and unnecessary. He says ITA's
approach "centres on the notion that it's a disease of the sinners. That
view is devoid of the essential humane approach to HIV/AIDS".
Adds Abbas: "I don't see why religious leaders cannot promote condom for
safe sex. If they have enough knowledge, if they understand human
behaviour and limitations, there is no religious bar for them to do so."