THEY WILL ASK thee as to what they should spend on others. Say: "Whatever of your wealth you spend shall [first] be for your parents, and for the near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer; and whatever good you do, verily, God has full knowledge thereof." - Al-Baqarah (2:215)
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Monday, 12 March 2007

When A Woman Has No Say

Maria is the only daughter from her late father’s second marriage. Her father died when she was still in secondary school, and the responsibility of taking care of her and her mother had to be taken over by her half-brothers.

Right after her SPM, they married her off to a man of their choice. Maria had no say. Being the obedient type, she consented. Maria and her mother were then no longer under the care of her half-brothers.

It was not a happy marriage, but since Maria had never been taught independence, she held on. Eventually her husband became more and more addicted to drugs, and Maria could not depend on him anymore to become the family’s breadwinner. The worse incident was when the husband once snatched somebody’s purse right in front of his son and his son's friends. Imagine the embarrassment and humiliation his son had to go through. It’s no wonder that until today, the son still hates his own father.

They got divorced. Maria was uncertain of her future. By then, she had 3 children to take care of. Not forgetting her elderly mother. Maria was again married off to another man by arranged marriage. Again, it was not her choice but she consented as she needed a man to depend on. She didn’t really have any say in it. This man had a more stable job, and seemed to be the more responsible type.

Soon enough, Maria became pregnant. She was happy. Her other 3 children were already in school, having a baby at home would definitely cheer her up. That was until she was called to the hospital and told that she was HIV positive.

I so happened to be on clinic duty during Maria’s first appointment at the HIV clinic.*

[*I am a certified company secretary. My office work involves secretarial, accounting and management services. And I was on clinic duty?? Actually, this is part of my NGO’s voluntary work. Those of us with flexi working hours take turns to be on duty at the clinic to talk to newly diagnosed HIV patients.]

Her husband was also called to the clinic to do a blood test to determine his status. From Maria’s records, I found out that her ex-husband was a drug user. I had already suspected then, that was how Maria got infected. But for whatever reasons, her present husband thought it was him who caused Maria’s HIV infection. Until now I still wonder if he himself had been on drugs, or if he had been “naughty”.

When Maria was first sent into the room to meet us, she was quiet. Shocked. Speechless. The questions playing in her head then were “Why me?” “What have I done wrong?”

Only when I sat closer to her and held her hands did she finally managed to say a word or two. She did not cry. It had not really sunk in yet. Knowing she couldn’t talk much at that time, I just gave her my NGO brochure with my name and phone number written on it. I told her I’d call her in a few days time, and that she could call me if she needed to talk to someone.

I thought I’d wait for a week before I’d call to check on her. But before I could do that, she decided to call me first. It was a good sign in the sense that she was ready to open up. The only problem was that she was crying when she called, I could hardly understand what she said.

I finally managed to figure out what she was trying to say. Her husband’s blood test showed that he was not infected! Maria panicked. All the “what if” questions began to play in her mind. What if her husband accused her of being unfaithful? What if her husband decided to leave her? At that time her husband had not been told of the test results yet. Maria was afraid to tell. She didn’t know HOW to tell him.

It was rather difficult to talk to her on the phone. All I could advice her was to sit down and discuss the matter with her husband. I told her whatever the outcome I’d be there if she needed me.

2 days later I received an SMS from Maria. She said she needed to talk. I immediately called her. Apparently her husband did not say anything when she told him about his blood test results. He didn’t accuse her of anything, and neither did he threaten to leave her. In a way, it was a good sign. But the problem was that the husband told her not to talk about this matter and treat things as though nothing happened.

As a man, the husband preferred to keep things inside him. But as a woman, Maria needed to let it all out. Since nobody else in the family knew about her HIV status, and her husband simply refused to talk about it, Maria didn’t have anyone to talk to. Needless to say, she welcomed me as her buddy. At least she knew there was somebody out there who’d still accept her despite her HIV.

Maria and I have been in constant contact with each other since then. She has already delivered a healthy baby boy last year. While I thought that would be better for her marriage, apparently it wasn’t to be.

The way I see it, as the husband didn’t want to talk about things to anyone, he was bound to “explode” anytime. And he did. They’d have fights to the extent that he’d chase Maria out of the house. But every time Maria wanted to do that, he’d stop her. Every time that happens, I will hear the “James Bond” ringtone on my handphone. (I assign different ringtones for different groups of people, and it’s James Bond for my PLWHA clients :-)) Maria just needed to talk about it. After letting it all out, she’d usually be okay. Well, so far anyway…

I don’t know if her husband is still negative. Although he was told to go for another test after some time, he never did. He simply refused. To him it is better not to know than to find out he’s positive. From what I was told, they still have unprotected sex despite knowing Maria’s HIV status. He refused to use condoms. All we’re trying to do is to safeguard him from HIV infection but what can we do when he himself doesn’t care?

Once, Maria panicked because her menses were a little bit late than usual. She thought she was pregnant again. It turned out to be false alarm… but the way things are going, it is not impossible. I asked Maria if she had ever tried discussing the matter with her husband. According to Maria, she simply couldn’t because… SHE’S JUST A WOMAN! She has no say. Every time she tries to speak up, they’d end up in a big fight.

And every time that happens, guess what comes up next?

Yes… I’ll hear the James Bond ringtone on my handphone... and “Jane Bond" will have to listen to a crying woman at the other end of the line…


Unknown said...

Hi Pi,

Gosh! I am speechless. I don't blame the hubby and least of all Maria. This is our 'malay' syndrome. We are shame driven as a race.

Well, there is one way. In fact the only way. That is through education. But having said that I somehow feel already depressed. I wonder why???

Pi Bani said...

Yes K.Ruby, the solution is indeed education.

Now, where do we start? (Am I making you more depressed?)