February 27, 2010
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Equal rights get a caning

If my women friends lived in Malaysia, and we happened to be Muslim, we’d – with a few exceptions – be badly battered and bruised. Our bodies would be red raw from constant thrashing. I wonder if we’d wear those lashing marks with pride. Or would the pain and humiliation of official caning eventually break our spirit, and reduce us to a pitiful submission?

The humiliation certainly got to 32 year old Kartika Shukarno. Last year when the former model and mother of two, was sentenced to a flogging for the crime of drinking a beer in a nightclub, she asked them to get on with it. As the judge in the Syariah High Court read out her sentence – six strokes of the rotan and a three year jail term or hefty fine – he explained the caning would make the accused “repent and serves as a lesson to Muslims”. Kartika bowed her head, kept calm, and after withdrawing her appeal said, “I will accept this earthly punishment, let Allah decide my punishment in the hearafter”.

Which raises an interesting point about Allah and his own interpretation of the Koran. Given so much of the foul treatment meted out to Muslim women is argued as justifiable according to the Koran, one can only wonder which of the myriad scholarly interpretations Allah himself might rely on.

There is Islamic scholarship that interprets versus of the Koran and cites various Hadith to argue that Allah preached respect for females, and equality between men and women. And then there are those scholars who interpret the sacred text as prescribing all manner of evils against women: so that they can be beaten by their husbands; shrouded in cloth; starved of food; forbidden to work, laugh or love whomever they choose. And even flogged for drinking a beer.

But it’s not just beer drinking that would make many of the women I know cop a flogging every weekend –if they lived in Malaysia. It’s sex. Two weeks ago the Malaysian government announced that three women have been imprisoned and caned for having sex out of wedlock.

Given just about every woman I know – again with a few exceptions – had a sexual encounter before marriage, we’d all qualify for a caning. It’s no wonder then that the Muslim editor of Malaysia’s The Star Online wrote in his editorial that news of the flogging would mean foreigners “are inevitably going to equate us with the Taliban. And who can blame them?”

The issue of caning is under hot dispute in Malaysia. It’s not permitted under civil law, but it is allowed under the Shariah Criminal Code, which applies only to Muslims. It’s this sort of duel-track judicial system that led Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, to claim back in 2006 that women in Malaysia are subjected to“gender apartheid” . She argued that having one law for non-Muslim women and another for Muslims meant the latter had to submit to draconian, outdated rules that didn’t apply to others: particularly in the area of personal freedom where Islamic Family Law allows men to take up to four wives at a time (which, interestingly, he can divorce via text message – a convenient concession to modernism).

This recent case of caning has enraged Malaysia’s women’s groups. Not just because it’s fundamentally barbaric: both the sentence and the charge of illicit sex. But because it’s a sign that things are getting worse for Muslim women, not better.

Although caning of women has been allowed for over 20 years in Malaysia, this is the first time the punishment has actually been carried out. Even the beer drinking Kartika, who called on the floggers to bring it on, is still waiting. The international publicity surrounding her case seems to have stalled the process. But in the case of the three unnamed women flogged earlier last month, the thrashing was carried out in secret, and officially announced nearly two weeks later.

It is against this fraught background that Dr Hamidah Marican, the executive director of the Malaysia’s Sisters In Islam, will arrive in Australia next week for a speaking tour. A guest of UNIFEM and here to address International Women’s Day events in Canberra and Perth, Dr Marican will have plenty to say about Islam’s treatment of women. She told ABC Radio that her organization was “shocked and very, very angry” over the recent imprisonment and whipping of women charged with having sex outside marriage. “Who gives the Government the right to do moral policing and why should a personal sin be turned into a crime against the state”, she said.

Last week Sisters In Islam called on the government to review the law that allows women to be whipped. But they’ve made that call before and it was ignored. No doubt it will be again. After all, as the religious advisor to Malaysia’s Prime Minister explained to the media, whipping is fair – the rotan used is thin, not thick, and the officer is well trained in appropriate caning.

I just wonder if he has a beer afterwards.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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