KUALA LUMPUR,. Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman are leading names when it comes to defending human rights and setting right any wrong perceptions on HIV/AIDS.
While Marina left the forefront of the HIV/AIDS scene about 15 years ago, she is back as Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF) patron while Dr Adeeba is still its chairman.
Both women also headed the Malaysian AIDS Council.
It is undeniable that HIV is unlike any other with the stigma and discrimination attached to it because of the key populations that it affects.
More so because infections can be through sexual transmission and drug usage.
In recent days, the connection between the disease and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has surfaced.
This is because the disease is often connected to GBT of the LGBT and the firestorm created by various quarters has resulted in many standing up against the hate speech being spread, particularly over social media.
Unfortunately, those who have spoken out, including Marina and Dr Adeeba, have been repeatedly spurned and condemned.
Both women, in turn, have taken such condemnation in their stride.
They recently took time out of their busy schedules to talk to Malay Mail about various issues, including the LGBT community, its impact on HIV/AIDS work and human rights.
There is no stopping Marina
In all her years of being vocal over various issues, Marina said she continued to do so as she felt a sense of responsibility because there were a lot of people who were dependent on her to speak out.
“I try to encourage people to speak for themselves but a lot of them can’t do it because it is too dangerous.”
“Nice messages” also mean a lot to Marina.
“At least someone thinks I am doing something right. I can’t be that bad.”
When asked what she thought of the recent attacks on the LGBT community, she said the change in government had caused the opposition to search for issues to “push the buttons” of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government.
“I think it is coming from the opposition. They don’t have anything else to talk about. They can’t talk about corruption, obviously. They can’t talk about institutional reforms,” she said.
“The only thing they can think of (is the LGBT community) and they know this will be difficult for Pakatan to respond unequivocally. So, they use whatever response for further capital.
“Unfortunately, it means the LGBT community gets caught in this politics and become the victims.”
The government, said Marina, needed to condemn violence against the LGBT community when it happened.
“It is against the law. You can’t simply beat people up regardless of their sexual orientation, so what is it that makes people feel that they can?”
Marina also said while there have been some positive statements and actions from individuals such as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh, these had been drowned out by comments like suggesting transgenders using the public toilets meant for the disabled.
She said there was no need to mete out punishment as it was private and personal behaviour, adding there were verses in the Quran that said not to expose people’s failings to the public because it does not dignify them.
“Privacy is very important. So under those circumstances, how many of those rules have you broken with this public caning and shaming of people? It is supposedly for educational purposes but who are you educating actually?”
She opined that there were people who were looking to the West when it came to the LGBT community.
Up to a point when they thought the LGBT community was demanding for issues like legalisation of same sex marriage.
“They don’t even have the basics. Why on earth they want all those things?
“They are human beings and citizens. They have the right to be treated fairly under the law.”
Consequences to HIV/AIDS work
Saying that Malaysia was becoming more conservative, Dr Adeeba said a lot of things regarding HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness could be done without obtaining the blessings of the general public.
Citing how it would continue to be difficult to talk about prevention methods like condom usage, she said social media could be used as an education tool among affected groups.
“It is all about funding and finding creative ways for prevention and treatment,” she added.
“We don’t need to pukul gendang (beat the drums) to do effective prevention.”
She, however, voiced concern that people would be afraid to come forward for testing and treatment, which could impede work in the HIV/AIDS field.
“A lot of energy and time is spent going around to try and explain things. There is a lot of hurt as well from this negativity,” she added.
She said educating the people was important in this aspect and the need to talk calmly and sensibly.
“There needs to be more progressive religious leaders speaking up,” she said.
“Highlight the compassion and mercy. Anwar (Ibrahim) spoke about the higher purpose of the Shariah.
“Those are the kind of messages that need to be repeated.
“Don’t nit-pick on these negative things because there is so much indoctrination of the hell, fire and brimstone kind of Islam.”
Dr Adeeba said Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, whom she described as deeply religious, also needed to play a major role.
“In all of his speeches, he’s about evidence and science.
“When it comes to HIV and other diseases, that is what it should be about. Religion should be made a private matter.”
She also said that the government needed to have “one voice” in order to push a common message through.
Case in point was the recent statement by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad about the caning of two women in Terengganu who were found guilty of attempted lesbian sex.
Dr Mahathir reportedly said Islam was not a ruthless religion that delights in humiliation, adding that his Cabinet felt the caning had tarnished the religion.
He also called for consideration for lighter sentences to be given in future to prevent a repeat of the case.
Dr Adeeba opined that Islam was about compassion and mercy.
“It is not about punishment or retribution but of mercy, compassion and support. How hard is that? And you have a state government sanctioned caning, which is normalising violence in a way.
“They always think this punishment and violence will deter people from anything. It doesn’t.
“Evidence shows that even capital punishment doesn’t deter people from trafficking drugs. It’s ineffective.”
On her relentless fight in ending AIDS and more recently, drug decriminalisation, she said she was doing what was important to her.
“I have invested so much of my time and energy. It’s important and needs to be done. It’s as simple as that,” she said.
“Every little win encourages you.”
Facing social media bashing
The furore involving both women cropped up when a Dr Nur Ilyani Mohamed Nawi wrote a Facebook post, criticising Marina over her stance on the LGBT community.
Consequently, Dr Adeeba rebuked Dr Nur Ilyani in a Facebook post.
The criticism levelled against Dr Adeeba was swift on social media with the post gathering thousands of reactions, comments and shares.
Dr Adeeba said she did not read all of the comments made in relation to that post and was in fact surprised when someone informed her that death threats had apparently been made.
“Half the people who were against me didn’t understand the context by which I was writing,” she said.
“I do think most of them saw a negative post before them and responded negatively as well.”
What concerned her more was the hate that it brought out in people.
Marina, meanwhile, said Dr Nur Ilyani was expressing her prejudice against the LGBT community.
She also voiced concern that it was not only threats of violence but violent acts were being committed against the LGBT community, citing the recent episode where a transwoman was beaten up in Seremban, Negri Sembilan.
“Are we a country of laws or not? Hate speech leads to physical assault.”