My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
Out of Egypt – our fellow African country up north – comes the disturbing news report that four HIV positive men and one of their friends had been convicted and sentenced to three years in jail for being HIV positive and thus assumed to be homosexual. The defense lawyer for the five, Adel Ramadan, said the judge convicted the men of the “habitual practice of debauchery,” a term imported from the British colonial times but now used in the Egyptian legal system to denote consensual homosexual acts. The Egyptian Daily News reports as follows:
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 12 men have been arrested since October 2007 in a spreading hunt for people suspected of being HIV-positive. “The arrests began when one man, stopped on the street during an altercation, told officers he was HIV positive. Police arrested him and the man with him, beat and abused them, and began picking up others whose names or contact information they found through interrogating the first detainees,” HRW reported.
All the men were charged with the “habitual practice of debauchery,” a term which in Egyptian law includes consensual sexual acts between men. According to HRW, Doctors from the Ministry of Health subjected all the detainees to forcible HIV tests without their consent. The organization said the Forensic Medical Authority performed forcible and abusive anal examinations on the men to “prove” they had had sex with other men.
A prosecutor informed one of them that he had tested positive for HIV by saying: “People like you should be burnt alive. You do not deserve to live.”
In addition to reports of abuse while in detention, the prisoners who tested HIV-positive were held in hospitals, chained to their beds, for months. After a domestic and international outcry, the Ministry of Health ordered the men unchained on Feb. 25.
Why do we not get to read about this flagrant abuse of human rights in our local papers? While the newspapers report every move from Zimbabwe, every farm invasion and every utterance from Mugabe’s thugs and while opposition parties and now even the ANC seems to be clamouring for President Mbeki to “do something” about Zimbabwe, there is not a peep from anyone about this scandalous abuse of the rights of innocent and defenseless individuals in another African country.
Is it perhaps because the victims of this abuse are not white, heterosexual farmers, but gay HIV positive men? Or is this silence caused by an unnecessary and callous sensitivity for the religious convictions of those in charge of the USA supported dictatorship in Egypt?
If this had happened to white gay men living in Zimbabwe and if the perpetrators were some of Mugabe’s thugs, we surely would have been told about it. Even the notoriously homophobic South African press would have discovered newfound sympathy for the plight of the men and would have written editorials about the need to respect and protect the rights of HIV positive individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. The Democratic Alliance would have issued statement after statement in defense of these poor young men and Gordon Brown would have waded in about the inhumanity of it all.
Yet, this has not happened. Some would rightly point out that we get more news from Zimbabwe and we demand more immediate action from our government on Zimbabwe because it is our neighbour and what happens there affects us directly. They might also argue that more people are affected by the attempts by Mugabe and his security chiefs to steal the election there than by the homophobic persecution of HIV positive men in Egypt.
But the fact remains that in our world there is only space in our tiny little callous hearts for that much moral outrage and at the moment most of that space is taken up by our indignation at the Mugabe regime. Yes, some of this concentration of our energies has to do with the proximity of Zimbabwe to South Africa, but I guess some of the focus on Zimbabwe must also have to do with the fact that white people have been thrown off their farms in Zimbabwe – the rule being that when things happen to heterosexual, HIV negative, white people it is always more newsworthy and more worthy of our moral outrage than when things happen to poor and marginalised individuals like the HIV positive homosexuals in Egypt.
I am not saying that we should not be outraged at the attempts by Mugabe to steal the election up north or that we should not vilify President Mbeki for saying that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe. There clearly is a huge crisis in that country and it will affect us one way or another and the way our President has dealt with this question is nothing short of scandalous.
I am, however, pleading for some perspective. There are many other countries where many evil things happen – often worse than what is happening in Zimbabwe. Egypt is one such country. There is no democracy in Egypt (not even the sham kind that Mugabe has instituted in Zimbabwe) and under the guise of religion, gay men (and now it seems hIV positive men) are persecuted there in a way that would be unthinkable even in Zimbabwe.
I am therefore waiting for a statement from the DA and from the ANC condemning this barbarous actions by the Egyptian government. What about having a special summit of the African Union where President Mbeki can be appointed mediator in this dreadful affair to try and get the Egyptian dictators to see reason? It will never happen, of course, because those gay HIV positive men in Egypt are not white or heterosexual and they are citizens of a country that are mollycoddled by both the West and by fellow African countries because of their strategic importance and because of their oil.
So the arrests and persecution will continue in Egypt long after Robert Mugabe has retired to his farm in Zimbabwe and Morgan Tsvangirai has taken over State House. And as we say in Afrikaans: nie ‘n haan sal daarna kraai nie. This is how our Western influenced morality works in South Africa.BACK TO TOP