An Islamic court’s decision to have a Muslim model whipped for drinking beer at a pub has triggered controversy in Malaysia, a multicultural country where such convictions are extremely rare.
Last week, a Shariah or religious court sentenced Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, 32, to six strokes of the cane and a fine of 5,000 ringgit (US$1,412) after she pleaded guilty to consuming alcohol in eastern Pahang state last year.
Her conviction created a furore in the nation, which is predominantly Muslim, but also home to large Indian and Chinese minorities. Alcohol is widely available in most parts of the country and Muslims are rarely punished for consuming it.
“The punishment of whipping is defined as torture and hence we should not in any way condone it,” Amnesty International Malaysia executive director Nora Murat said.
“This is the wrong way to educate anyone about the religion. When the sin is between her and God, there is always an option of being repentant. It’s up to God to decide on her faith, and not people,” she said.
Most were stunned that whipping of women was permitted in Malaysia’s Islamic courts, which operate alongside civil courts under a dual-track system.
“It’s not just unkind, it’s unjust,” leading women rights activist Ivy Josiah told the New Straits Times newspaper, while Women’s Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil reportedly said that while she did not approve of Muslims drinking, she was shocked by the ruling.
Islamic scholars, however, argued that the punishment was necessary to deter other Muslims from drinking.
Harussani Zakaria, an influential mufti or religious scholar, said the punishment was “very lenient” because Islamic law allows for up to 40 strokes of the cane for any Muslim caught drinking.
“The [punishment] meted out on her is just to shame her and educate her. The judge is doing the right thing,” the mufti said.
Urging other judges to hand down similar judgments in future, he said a fine was no longer effective in deterring Muslims from drinking alcohol, which is forbidden under the religion.
“The cane to be used in this case is not the same as in prison and they will be fully dressed [when being caned], because it’s meant to shame them. Even if a person is caned 40 times, it won’t cause death,” Harussani said.
Experts said it was unclear whether such a sentence had been carried out before, and there has been much discussion over who should carry it out, and how.
In the civil courts, where caning is a common penalty for serious crimes including rape, it is carried out with a long, thick length of rattan which causes intense pain, breaks open the skin and leaves lasting scars.
However, the cane to be used on Kartika will reportedly be just more than 1m long and 1cm thick, and the blow is not administered on the bare skin.
The person wielding the cane is banned from lifting it above their head, so the force of the blow is not as hard.
Even as the debate raged, Kartika reportedly said she would not appeal and wanted to “hasten” the punishment so she could get on with her life.
“I will accept this earthly punishment, let Allah decide my punishment in the hereafter,” said the mother of two, who has been living in neighboring Singapore for 15 years after marrying a citizen of the city-state, according to the New Straits Times.
“I want to advise youngsters to learn from my experience and not cause shame to themselves and their families,” she said.