In 2017, a UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) report recorded that there were nearly 87,000 people living with HIV in Malaysia.
Rahayu Rahmat is one of them. The mother of four was infected with the virus by her drug-using ex-husband.
That was just the beginning of her tragic story.
“He sold her to a brothel in Johor to pay off his drug debts,” recalls Aishah Mohamad, a new playwright and final year journalism student.
“But because she was infected with HIV, she was thrown out of the brothel after a few months,” she adds.
Rahayu returned home to find out that their house had been sold off and that her children were living on the streets. She had no choice but to return to the sex trade to keep her family alive.
“But in a turn of events, an NGO worker got Rahayu off the streets, married her and the pair went on to set up Persatuan Kebajikan Sinar Sofia,” says Aishah, 26, referring to the Johor-based halfway house set up by Rahayu and her current husband to rehabilitate sex workers.
However, Rahayu’s ordeal did not stop there. Upon finding out that Rahayu has HIV, her former employee posted a photo of her throughout the mall where she worked, warning people to stay clear of her.
She was forced out of work.
This is a tale that Aishah has been dying to tell ever since she heard it from Rahayu back in 2015 when she visited Persatuan Kebajikan Sinar Sofia for a university project.
The Unitar International University student aims to break the stigma surrounding HIV in her first full-length play.
Aptly named Forget Me Not, the play opens on Jan 31 at the Lot’ng Arts Space in Subang Jaya, Selangor and is helmed by Azmi Hud, who directed the critically-acclaimed IQ Rock last year.
It features actors Aifa Amalina, Nabil Musawir, Maza Maamor, Tharwa Karina and Adiilah Radzak.
The Malay play (with English surtitles) will run for 45 minutes, with a post-performance Circle Talk with HIV positive personnel from Sinar Sofia.
Forget Me Not tells the story of Shila, who after three years of marriage, finally gets pregnant. In a turn of events, both husband and wife are diagnosed as HIV positive.
Shila wants to keep the baby but her husband doesn’t for fear of risking the baby’s life.
This leads to a conflict between husband and wife. With mounting pressure from her family, Shila has to make a tough call.
At its core, Forget Me Not is a story of survival, redemption and acceptance.
“I wanted to tell the story of a woman’s journey towards freedom. I wanted to portray female empowerment and embracing acceptance.
“What people living with HIV want is acceptance and to be treated equally. The only thing that differentiates us is the virus. So, why discriminate?” asks Aishah.
She wrote the play as part of her internship with Shah Alam-based theatre company Anomalist Production.
The local outfit, founded in 2014, is responsible for several notable plays, including Skrip Untuk Ali, Teater Bangsa, Home and IQ Rock.
For the Negri Sembilan-born Azmi, acceptance is a major driving force behind his directorial approach.
“You will never know what’s going to happen in the future. Your partner or your best friend might be infected with the virus. But you need to accept them.
“If we abandon them, where are they going to go? We need to support them in any way possible,” says the 33-year-old director.
Both Aishah and Azmi want to highlight that abortion is not a necessary option for pregnant women with HIV.
“A baby which is from a HIV positive parent can be born without the virus. Many, especially pregnant mothers, are not aware that there are options and medical treatments available. We want to make this known,” says Azmi.