31 May 2006

Wednesday May 31, 2006

Fact or fiction?


AMIDST the endless chatter about The Da Vinci Code recently, a British survey revealed that almost half of the people who had read it thought it was likely to be true. Considering that the book is billed as fiction, how can this be?

Perhaps we cannot blame these people. These days it is so hard to tell fact from fiction that anyone would get confused. Take the case of another book, A Million Pieces by James Frey, that was supposed to be biographical until it turned out that the author had made up some of the stories in it. Either way, it sold millions of copies so maybe people don’t mind being confused.

But this confusion is not limited to books. Fiction is often aggressively touted as fact so that other objectives may be achieved. The one that most comes to mind is the one about how Iraq needs to be invaded because they have Weapons of Mass Destruction. When this turned out to be irrefutably fictional, other little fairytales were trotted out as hardcore fact. The latest is that “the election of a constitutional government in Iraq justified going to war”, cheerily announced by President Bumble and Prime Minister Bee. That’s rather like saying that the marrying of the Prince justified Cinderella being careless enough to lose an expensive pair of glass slippers that night. Isn’t hindsight great?

There are numerous other examples of fiction touted as fact. Abstinence prevents HIV. Polygamy is good for women. Our schools are really good. Our MPs are intelligent and sensitive people. We have an open society. Every bit of gossip and rumour we hear is true and comes from reliable sources.

The latest marvellous one is that men can be charitable by marrying women without having to be responsible for them. This only confirms my contention that in this country we promote lots of sex and lust as long as it’s legal. A friend of mine made a good point; at least prostitutes get paid for their services. In kahwin misyar, women don’t even get that!

Then there’s fact derided as fiction. Price hikes hurt people. Our universities are not fabulous. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is a security threat. MPs seem to get away with anything. We are nowhere near solving our drug problem. Our mainstream papers don’t report all the news that’s fit to read.

No wonder people get confused. We seem to be living in parallel worlds. One is the hunky dory one where everything seems to be going great, where one can simply adapt one’s lifestyle to suit our shrinking wallets, convince ourselves that laws are just meant for bad people and not us, pat ourselves on our backs that we can endure any misery without having to demonstrate or protest like other people. Then there is the real one where people are really finding it hard to make ends meet, where we can see obvious corruption and abuse of position, where women really have a rotten deal, where segregation is becoming an increasing reality.

The worst fiction of all, and for some reason this is one bit of fiction that almost everybody believes, is that nothing can be done and we should resign ourselves to it. We could take that as fact and then have to live with the fiction that we are a democracy. I suppose over time we can make ourselves believe anything at all.

It used to be, for example, that teachers, doctors, lawyers and the like used to get into politics because, having seen the realities of life for ordinary people, they decided that the only way to help was to get into Parliament. That was fact dealing with facts. Nowadays people aim to get into Parliament using the fiction that they wanted to help others when the fact is often that the only people helped are themselves. We should take a close look at those who make claims about helping others, usually those who have the same interests as themselves, and see what they have actually done to help those really in need. Then, based on those facts, let’s stop this fiction that they are there to serve the nation.

I don’t know about you but the fact for me is reading the news daily, our politicians are losing credibility daily. Already they are our least trusted people (wasn’t it funny that none wanted to make a comment on that?), but with all the recent pronouncements, is it any wonder that our confidence gets eroded even more? Did we actually elect these people? What on earth possessed us?

To stop living in a fictional world where we think everything is fine when they are actually not, we, as citizens, need to take more responsibility. If a politician says something objectionable or stupid, we should boo them loud and clear. We mustn’t close one eye to it all.

22 May 2006

Wednesday May 17, 2006

HIV on the rise


ROHANI is a 17-year-old girl whom anyone would mistake for being only 14. At age 12, her stepfather started to rape her. When she was 14, he died. Soon after, her mother also died, like her husband, of AIDS. Rohani got tested and was found to be HIV-positive.

Sent to live with her grandmother, she found her way to the hospital where she was put on anti-retroviral drugs. Now she feels better and wants to go back to school. But she remains an introverted girl, perhaps because of the horrific life she has experienced so far. Rohani was one of about 40 women I met in Kota Baru not too long ago, all of them HIV-positive. An NGO there, Persatuan Prihatin was set up two years ago by an extraordinary staff nurse Zaimah Hussin, along with two dedicated doctors, Dr Maheran Mustafe and Dr Norliza Ariffin. As a counsellor at the Tengku Ampuan Zainab Hospital, Zaimah became concerned about the number of HIV-infected women she was seeing, about eight or nine new cases a month. Today Prihatin has a membership of over 100 women, all of them infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

There have been many articles written about Prihatin in the past few months. They are doing extraordinary work but rarely do these articles explain what the phenomenon of Prihatin really means.

Firstly, it is very clear that women are becoming infected with HIV in our country in ever-increasing numbers. The 100-over members of Prihatin are all from one state; who knows what is happening in other states? Secondly, despite this, nobody seems to be alarmed at all. The Health chapter in the 9th Malaysia Plan mentions HIV/AIDS but said nothing about the increasing number of women becoming infected, a sure sign that the epidemic is making inroads into the general population.

The chapter on Women also makes no mention of any concern about this except to say that there should be more awareness about HIV/AIDS among women. The recently announced National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS in turn relegates women to marginalized groups, making it seem as if they are marginal to the problem rather than increasingly central. This will affect how we prioritise prevention.

Experience from all around the world shows that AIDS is rapidly becoming feminised. As more women become infected, the consequences for society are disastrous.

We lose not just wives and mothers but caregivers and nurturers, farm workers, teachers, nurses and factory hands. Children become orphans, the elderly are left to care for their grandchildren. If anyone thinks this is only happening in Africa and elsewhere, they are wrong.

The rising number of cases among women in Malaysia is invisible and silent, which makes it deadlier than anything else. As much as people seem to sympathise with women who get infected by their husbands (which is mostly the case), few HIV-positive women dare to declare themselves for fear of being shunned. Most of them are poor, barely able to feed themselves and their children on less than RM200 a month. This drives them to find ways to survive that includes finding new husbands without necessarily informing them of their status. Prihatin tries to counsel them and their potential spouses to ensure everyone understands what is involved.

If we look at the phenomenon of women becoming infected, then it is obvious that when there is inequality between men and women, women become very vulnerable. Our society tolerates the idea of men being “weak” when it comes to affairs of the loins, yet refuses to make the obvious link with disease. We recognize that women are vulnerable yet refuse to empower them in any way so that they may say no to unsafe sex.

We think mandatory testing is the answer, yet this only tells us about a person’s status at a certain point in time. It does not give women any power to ensure that their status remains HIV-negative in the future when we also condone a man’s right to do as he pleases, because we tolerate, and sometimes even promote, men’s so-called “predatory” nature. We condemn men after they have done something wrong, but subtly encourage their machismo beforehand while at the same time ensuring that women have no power to protect themselves.

This Sunday (May 21) is International AIDS Memorial Day when we remember the thousands of Malaysians who have died of AIDS, and the many thousands of families and children left bereaved by their deaths. We would do well to ponder how many more deaths there will be in the future, all due to our neglect and unwillingness to take real steps to protect people. Is empowering women to protect them so unpalatable because it will up-end the status quo between the sexes?

15 May 2006

Wednesday May 3, 2006
The followers
A FRIEND was relating how after her daughter had read the Da Vinci Code, she had wanted to read the Bible. Which is not in itself a bad thing except that she was concerned that an impressionable young mind would not be able to differentiate fact from fiction. Also it seemed that perhaps what was needed is a Da Vinci Code-type book for Muslims to spark off the same level of interest in young people in their own religion.
Except that if anyone tried to write a similar thriller based around Islam, they’d be hounded and pilloried and threatened with death, thousands would riot in protest and people who would never have been able to read the book either because they are illiterate or can’t afford it would have died.
Such is the difference between our religions. While there are many Christians who are upset about the book and movie, they are countering it with seminars and other educational events to balance what is being said in the book, even if the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci Code-related riots or deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the adherents of the faith.
It would be nice if everyone could brush off similar challenges and say “we are strong enough to withstand any attack”. Even if a book or a movie becomes a runaway hit, compared to the total number of any faith’s followers, the numbers sold can never match it. Books are by nature, in a world where illiteracy is still common, a luxury item. As are American movies, no matter what arguments people make about cultural imperialism.
I remember when there were riots over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, President Benazir Bhutto commented wryly that the people who were dying over the book were those who would never have read it, or possibly even heard of it if someone hadn’t whipped them into a frenzy. A similar situation arose with the cartoons. As insensitive as they were, they were still not worth dying over.
The point is that people’s impressions of a religion are often related to the behaviour of its adherents. Some religions are thought of as simply kooky because its followers behave strangely. Some are viewed as benign and peaceful because its followers resolutely will not harm a fly.
But when people, supposedly in the name of religion, riot, burn and kill, it can’t help but give the impression of a religion that advocates this, no matter how much we point out that nowhere in religious texts itself does it say you should do this. And unfortunately we get the whole spectrum, from men who publicly insult women on a daily basis without censure to the real crazies.
Recently in New York I had to suffer the embarrassment of having to listen to a Muslim man say to a non-Muslim woman at a forum, “Don’t mess with Muslims, we have nuclear weapons!” There I was trying to dispel stereotypes about violence-prone Muslims and in one fell swoop, this nutcase confirmed every stereotype there was.
I think the only people who can dispel stereotypes about Muslims are women. While there are certainly some conservative women, even when these speak out they will naturally change perceptions because in a world where Muslim women are perceived to be perpetually hidden behind curtains, their sheer presence and articulateness will be noticed. What more if they are able to argue rationally in a calm manner.
Thus far there have been very few Muslim men in the international media who give a good impression. We might argue that the Western media selects who they interview in order to perpetuate stereotypes, which is true and that is a problem for all of us. A man or woman who looks like the archetypal wild-eyed conservative is far more telegenic than someone who looks like everyone else. Channel surfers are far more likely to stop at the sight of someone they think of as alien to their culture than if they see someone too similar to them. To stop this means having to make a concerted effort to come together as one community and decide on a sophisticated media strategy. But sadly coming together as one united community is a challenge in itself.
If we do manage as a global community to change other people’s perceptions of us, the benefits would be many. Our own people might think more kindly of each other so peace would reign within. And because within ourselves, we respect diversity, we can do the same with others. Then peace would truly have a chance.