Malaysia getting bruised over caning women
Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 33-year-old mother of two, will have an audience with Malaysian royalty next week when she will ask to be caned. Malaysia’s royals (the country has nine sultans, one for each state on the peninsula) don’t usually grant audiences to commoners, even part-time models such as Kartika, to discuss corporal punishment. But the Malay royal families are officially in charge of religious affairs, and Kartika was convicted two years ago in an Islamic court of drinking a beer.
She’s already paid a 5,000 ringgit ($1,469) fine in a case that has sparked a raging debate over the powers of Islamic courts to issue such rulings, because federal law shields women from such punishments. She has said repeatedly that she just wants to be caned and be done with it. (And perhaps in the process take a bit of revenge given the storm of controversy over the case?)
It’s not as if it’s going to some horrific dungeon experience. Kartika is due to receive six strokes, administered by a woman policeman using a thin rattan cane, while crouched fully clothed on the floor of a prison.
But for all sides on the issue, it’s the principle that matters.
Kartika’s unwanted celebrity resulted fromthe fact that she was going to be the first woman ever caned in Malaysia, a country whose 27 million population has a small majority of Malays, and subtantial minorities of ethnic Indians, Chinese and tribals. She will no longer have that distinction. Malaysia announced last week that it had quietly caned three women in December and January for having illicit sex. One of them told local media that it didn’t hurt.
Malaysia’s Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said he wanted to publicise the canings because there had been too many misunderstandings about Kartika’s case. The canings did not hurt the women, but “they said it caused pain within.” If he was hoping to defuse the issue, it doesn’t seem to be working.
Sisters in Islam, a liberal activist group, questioned why the government waited so long to announce the caning of the three women. Rights groups say caning women is cruel, degrading and discriminatory. Authorities say it is basically harmless and a good deterrent.
Amnesty International has urged Malaysia to end “an epidemic of caning,” including such punishment meted out to thousands of men. The fact is that caning is not at all uncommon in Malaysia and not just for adults either. Schoolchildren in state schools are given a few whacks of the rattan across the palms of their hands for the usual kinds of hijinks. Spare the rod, spoil the country.
Presumably, this is the message that the Malaysin government hopes to deliver if it succeeds in holding an international conference on the subject of caning women. Women’s Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said she would seek cabinet approval to hold such a conference.
Critics say the sudden focus on caning and other Islamic fatwas — last year, Islamic authorities warned women not to wear trousers which they saw as a slippery slope to lesbianism — is embarrasing and may reveal a political agenda. All the more so since it comes amid the widely publicised trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of consensual sex with a male aide. Homosexualilty is outlawed in Malaysia, but Anwar’s supporters note that even if he did it, his prosecution is selective at best since gay bars abound in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Violence erupted in January after the Supreme Court ruled that the Malaysian Catholic Church can use the word “Allah” in its publications.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition, led by a Malay-Muslim party, suffered un unprecedented setback in the March 2008 general elections, because ethnic Chinese and Indians deserted the coalition in droves, parlty over the issue of privileges and affirmative actionprogrammes for Malay-Muslims. Since then it has lost a series of by-elections and is seen to be trying to shore up its Islamic base, inhopes of chipping away at the hardline Islamic party in the Islamic coalition.
If that is the case, it is coming at a cost. The continuing religious and political turmoil is keeping international investors on the sidelines at a time when the export-led economy is beginningot emerge strongly from the 2008 global financial crisis.