William & Mary

For Kati Willson ’08, a Religiocultural Approach to HIV/AIDS in the Muslim Community of South Africa

“I didn’t expect to be a Religious Studies major, but I was inspired by the first few classes I took,” said Kati Willson ’08.

The inspiration eventually led to Kati’s Honors Thesis, “Breaking the Silence: South African Muslim Responses to HIV/AIDS and a Theology of Compassion,” for which she has received highest honors.

Her junior year, Kati spent five weeks in South Africa as part of a study abroad program. She knew she wanted to go back, and last January began to design an Honors project that included on-site research in the country.

“My thesis research was prompted by the observation that in South Africa, public and private health initiatives to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic have not responded to the diverse needs of the South African population,” Kati said.

Her thesis advisor, Professor Tamara Sonn, helped to arrange an internship as research assistant to Farid Esack, at Positive Muslims, an HIV/AIDS organization based in Cape Town. Arriving in June 2007, Kati spent a total of two months in South Africa.

Positive Muslims focuses on developing a theology of compassion toward HIV/AIDS from within Islam. The organization was formed as a response to the negativity surrounding HIV/AIDS in the Muslim community.

“Many religious groups around the world, both Muslim and others, want to believe that their communities are protected from HIV/AIDS because of their moral codes,” Kati said. “HIV/AIDS is strongly associated with promiscuous sexual behavior and drug and alcohol use, all things that are forbidden to Muslims.”

Faghmeda Miller, for example, the first South African Muslim to publicly declare her HIV+ status on a Muslim radio station, in November 1996, was scorned and even threatened by other Muslims. Although she had access to secular and Christian support groups, Faghmeda wanted to create a support group for Muslims like her to cope with HIV/AIDS within their Islamic faith. Working alongside Farid Esack, Kayum Ahmed, and other committed individuals, Miller co-founded Positive Muslims.

Kati’s internship was very fluid and allowed her to pursue her research project. “I was looking at a religiocultural approach to HIV/AIDS in the Muslim community of South Africa. Religion and culture are inextricable, and together influence the way people respond to both mundane and extraordinary events in their lives,” Kati said. Her conclusions? “It’s tricky to draw conclusions from such a limited base. South Africa’s public health campaigns have alienated many religious leaders and closed communities off to discussion of the problem. Other efforts that have been successful have been designed to work within the social and religious structures particular to countries. That means working with religious leaders and discussing the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS because of its association with immoral behavior that is forbidden to Muslims.”

“Doing an honors thesis was truly the culmination of my academic experience at William and Mary,” she said. “To work closely with several professors and apply what I had learned in classes over the previous four years was exciting and fulfilling. Of course, the more you know the more you realize you don't know; but working on an honors thesis does allow you to build up a concentrated body of knowledge about one particular thing.”

“I’ve had a good experience at William and Mary. It’s a matter of finding your niche. In Religious Studies, I’ve been really lucky to meet some faculty members who have treated me as a scholar.” Kati also appreciated the many faculty who “expected me to meet their expectations.”

Speaking of great faculty, Kati advises other students: “Don’t be afraid to take a class with a really great professor, even if it’s not a topic you’re necessarily interested in. Develop close relationships with professors, and take a variety of classes.” Also, and perhaps most importantly to her, “study abroad. Get outside of the classroom!”

After graduation, Kati plans to pursue a career in public health: “Next year I’ll be at U.Va. doing the post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, because I didn’t take the pre-med courses at William and Mary. I'd like to pursue an M.D./Master’s in public health or M.D./Ph.D. in international health and development.”