Are clerics justified in caning a Muslim woman?

Posted: September 1, 2009 in social issues
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I have seen my Muslim colleagues, not just men even women, drinking and smoking. I feel they are very lucky to be in a country like India, where their actions invite no public wrath unlike Muslim countries. And for a moment, I was shocked to learn that a Malysian Muslim has been ordered for a caning sentence for drinking alcohol in public place. She was sentenced to six strokes of the cane and a fine after getting caught by Islamic enforcement officials drinking beer at a hotel lounge two years ago. She was first arrested in 2007 for drinking a beer in a hotel nightclub and was tried in a sharia court.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 32-year-old mother of two, in Malaysia received a temporary reprieve on Monday. Her punishment has been pushed further and will not be carried out in the fasting month of Ramadan. She has also paid a fine of 5,000 ringgit ($1,420) for drinking.

If punished, she will be the first woman in the Southeast Asian country to be caned under rarely enforced Islamic criminal laws. Like a true Muslim woman, instead of appealing for the sentence, Kartika had asked that she be punished in public. She wants others to learn a lesson from her experience!

Kartika’s case has divided Muslims in Malaysia, where Malay-Muslims constitute 55 per cent of the population, with conservatives coming out in support of the punishment.

Time and again the Shariah courts want to show their power and this time, by imposing a punishment on a woman. Politicians of course will not like to upset conservative Malay-Muslims, for the fear of drawing their ire and losing vote base.

This is not the first time a Muslim woman was caught drinking in public. Shariah judges have meted out the maximum sentence for drinking alcohol to a woman on one previous occasion also. The first offender, waitress Noorazah Baharuddin, 22, was sentenced in January for consuming liquor in a pub in Pahang in 2008. She has appealed and the case is reportedly pending.

Three men who were previously convicted for drinking alcohol and were sentenced to be caned are also reportedly waiting for their appeals to be heard.

One of my Muslim friends told me that according to Islamic principles, caning will be conducted with a small, thin stick and cannot be administered on the head, face, stomach, chest or genitals.

Under Malaysian government’s civil criminal system, men can be caned for serious offences such as rape. These punishments are administered using a thicker cane and applied to the bare buttocks of the offender, who is bound to a frame.

Not just Arab countries, even Singapore also allows caning for serious offences like rape and drug trafficking. In 1994, US teenager Michael Fay received four strokes of cane in a Singapore prison after being convicted of vandalism.

In Indonesia, caning is not part of the criminal legal system though it is used in Aceh province, which has introduced a form of Shariah law since getting autonomy in 2005.

Caning is nothing new in Arab countries and several people have been caned in Aceh, the so-called Veranda of Mecca, in Indonesia, for crimes like drinking or selling alcohol, having sexual relations outside marriage and gambling.

The blue book in Aceh lists the crimes and the punishment, including: Not going to the mosque for Friday prayers on three occasions: Six months’ jail or three strokes of the cane;
Eating and drinking in public during the fasting month: Four months’ jail or two strokes of the cane; Consuming alcohol: 40 strokes of the cane; Committing an immoral act such as sex outside marriage: Maximum nine strokes of the cane and minimum three strokes and/or a fine.

I even heard that Aceh was even thinking of implementing more feared punishments of stoning or the lopping-off of hands and even proposals to go one step further, to allow the tips of fingers to be cut off for the crime of stealing.

Being an outsider, I disagree with caning as a punishment and feel Sharia law has gone too far. It is very sad to see a person being caned in public. How can one imagine a person in tears when being caned because of shame?

In India, there was this amusing incident, where women of Dharampur caught men drunk, wrapped skirts around them, paraded them through the village and forced them to pay a fine of Rs 100 in 1993. Scores of women had also broke through a police line in 1992 and knocked down a new liquor store with pick-axes and shovels.  A similar pressure in Andhra Pradesh led the government in 1993 to agree to close up to 6,000 stores that sold arrack.

If authorities or the clerics really want to do something against drinking alcohol, why can’t they ask the government to ban it completely instead of only detaining Muslims who consume alcohol in public places? By banning alcohol, they will not only save people, especially Muslims, from committing a big sin according to their Muslim laws, but also save many families from being ruined due to the addiction. I seriously feel instead of caning and torturing physically, they should give them counselling.

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