“A loving smile is counted as charitable offering”

Rachel Mahoney 

In Islam, there is an entire pillar dedicated to the importance of Muslim charity and alms for the poor which states:

“Filled with the gratitude of La ilaha Ilallah, we long to share with all beings the bounties bestowed on us by the Generous One. This is manifested by sharing a portion of lawfully earned income with those in need, zakat. Beyond this is the continuous flow of generous actions, thoughts and gestures. The Prophet of Allah has enjoined that we offer charity constantly through every limb of our body. A loving smile is counted as charitable offering.

Though it was recorded in the 5th century and has been the subject of much controversy in recent decades, the Qu’ran advocates for the same human rights many contemporary global health workers believe and strive for. In her analysis of HIV/AIDS in China, Yanqiu Rachel Zhou explains how AIDS patients in China (and in many other parts of the world), are viewed as, “morally problematic others” for which foreign aid workers and missionaries are solely responsible (Zhou 293).  These people experience widespread discrimination and social and familial abandonment because of the “general ignorance and misconceptions” surrounding their disease.  Like Chinese HIV-positive individuals, AIDS patients worldwide suffer incredible mistreatment because they are written off as promiscuous, drug-addicted, and entirely responsible for their poor health statuses.  According to Farmer, this sub-human treatment is a form of structural violence, or “institutionalized offenses of human dignity: extreme and relative poverty, social inequalities … and more spectacular forms of violence that are un-contestedly human rights abuses” (Farmer: Pathologies of Power, 8).

In many countries where HIV/AIDS is prevalent, ignorance and myths about the virus contribute to its proliferation, especially amongst poor and voiceless women.  For instance, the false notions that AIDS is a men’s disease and heterosexual AIDS “won’t happen” have robbed many HIV-positive women of their voices, rendering them almost totally invisible from modern scientific and popular commentary about AIDS (Farmer, 62).  Farmer claims that these women have not been silent about their plights, but have “simply been unheard” as forces of structural violence, sexism, and poverty rob women of agency over their bodies and their health.

Poverty, social inequity, and low self-esteem amongst poor women are considered major co-factors in leading women to feel powerless and engage in high-risk sexual behavior. Farmer elaborates on this connection: “AIDS has transformed many women’s survival strategies into death strategies” and he cites rising trends of poor young women using sex at the behest their families to generate income in impoverished communities (Farmer, 79).

In these ways we can see how diseases like HIV/AIDS and cholera are intersectional, and how the people who are enduring them can be mapped amongst a landscape of interacting social structures.  Scholars like Famer and Zhou make clear that the solutions to healing people cut-off from their communities because of false stigma need not be elaborate or expensive.  If these people were simply viewed as human beings, that would be a fine start toward their recovery. Paralleling the pillar of Islamic charity, Zhou writes how one Chinese AIDS patient reported feeling markedly better about his health status after receiving “just a smile or warm eye contact from others” (Zhou 294).

Image of malnourished AIDS patient in China

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