BANGKOK, THAILAND — Malaysia caned three Muslim women convicted of adultery by a court of Islamic law, the first time that women in the multi-faith country have been subject to the punishment.
Last August, a similar sentence against a Muslim woman caught drinking was deferred amid complaints that shariah courts had overstepped the mark. That punishment is still pending.
Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said he wanted to publicize the case of the three women, who also received short jail terms, because of “too much hype” over the earlier case.
“People are saying that no woman has been caned before. … today I am announcing that we have already done it,” he told a press conference. He added that the women didn’t suffer any cuts or bruises from the caning and had “repented” for their offenses. Four men were also convicted of “illicit sex” and sentenced to whipping.
What role for Islamic law?
Last year the case of Kartika Shukarno sparked a legal debate over the powers of Islamic courts to issue such rulings, since federal law shields women from the punishment. Shariah courts operate in parallel in Malaysia but are accused of infringing on secular rights, particularly by non-Muslims.
The ruling coalition is led by a Malay-Muslim party that has suffered a steady fall in popularity and has tried to use Islamic issues to shore up its base. Last month saw protests and a spate of church and mosque attacks across Malaysia during a row over the use of “Allah” by a Christian newspaper. The word is commonly used in Malay and the closely related language of Indonesian as a generic word for “God.”
Muslim conservatives insist Allah should only be used to refer to the Muslim god. On Dec. 31 a court ruled in favor of the Christian newspaper, but the government has appealed the decision.
Sisters in Islam, a liberal advocacy group, condemned the latest caning and questioned why the government had waited a week before announcing it. The group said the case showed “further discrimination against Muslim women in Malaysia” that it violated the constitution.
Amnesty International also criticized the caning and said that it was unacceptable as a punishment for any crime, whoever the offender. It pointed out that around 35,000 men in Malaysia have been caned since 2002, mostly illegal migrants. A rattan cane is used against bare buttocks and can leave painful wounds.
Singapore also canes offenders. Both countries are former British colonies and have defended corporal punishment as a suitable deterrent.