19 February, 2010

Faith and Punishment :Caning of Muslim women in Malaysia

When you think of caning women for adultery, the first places that come to mind are probably Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. But add to that list Malaysia, a country usually known for its diversity and religious tolerance.

The first Malaysian women to be caned under Islamic law for having illicit sex have reportedly said they regretted their actions and welcomed the punishment.

The three women, whose identities were not revealed, gave the first account of the caning which took place earlier this month, drawing condemnation from human rights activists and applause from some Muslim groups.

Human rights campaigners, who were stunned by the caning of the three women which had not been foreshadowed by authorities, were sceptical over the comments published in several Malaysian newspapers.

"These three women are just normal people who have been surrounded by all kinds of legal mumbo jumbo and pressured into agreeing to be caned," one activist told AFP.

The case is worrying because it speaks to the trend of Malaysia's increasingly assertive Shariah courts, under which these cases were tried. Federal law forbids the caning of women and the caning of men over 50. But several states have local laws on the books that permit caning punishments for women, and in recent months Shariah courts have not been afraid to use them. In August, a Shariah court handed a caning sentence to a Muslim woman for drinking beer, though her sentence has yet to be carried out because of public outcry over the punishment.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who announced the canings on Wednesday, said that those punished had been "advised on ways to repent and to get closer to Allah." The three women "hope other women would refrain from doing things which are against Islam," he said.

“The caning punishment meted out by the Syariah court is legal and how the international community looks at it, is up to them, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said.

“While the caning sentence meted out by civil courts can cause hurt and sometimes even death, caning according to Syariah law is light. It is more to educate and remind Muslims to honour and abide by their religion,” he said.

Amnesty International has called on the Malaysian government to end caning after three women were subjected to the punishment following their conviction for extramarital sex.

"The caning of these three women is just the tip of the iceberg," said Donna Guest, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific programme. "Since 2002 the Malaysian authorities have caned over 35,000 people, mostly non-Malaysians for immigration offenses."

Most caning sentences in Malaysia are handed down by civil courts rather than Shariah courts. Amendments to the Immigration Act in 2002 stipulate caning for immigration offences, thus increasing the use of this punishment. In June 2009 the Malaysian government announced that they had sentenced 47,914 migrants to be caned since the amendments took effect.

"These thousands of cases point to an epidemic of caning in Malaysia," said Donna Guest. "The Malaysian government needs to abolish this cruel and degrading punishment, no matter what the offence."

The practice of caning can inflict severe physical suffering and leave damage and scarring for months. Such corporal punishment constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, which is prohibited absolutely under international customary human rights law.

In July 2009, the Shariah High Court in Pahang sentenced a Muslim woman, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, to six strokes of the cane and a fine after she pleaded guilty to consuming alcohol in a hotel bar in December 2007. To date her sentence has not yet been carried out.

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