Malaysian Woman Sentenced to Caning for Drinking Beer

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I have been meaning to post on this case for a while, and given yesterday's post on the story of Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese woman punished for wearing pants, now seems like a good time.

In July, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 32-year-old Malaysian woman, was fined and sentenced by an Islamic court to six lashes with a cane.  Her offense: having a beer.  Authorities postponed the caning at the last minute, saying they did not want to carry out the sentence during the holy month of Ramadan.  Questions remain as to whether Kartika will actually be caned when Ramadan ends and, as these authorities see it, it will be again be okay to beat women for trivial offenses.

Malaysia, the population of which is about two-thirds Muslim, has a dual-track legal system in which civil and religious courts exist side-by-side.  Sure, that may sound like a great idea, but it can cause some friction, which has been highlighted by this case.  Consuming alcohol is a violation of religious law but not the civil code, and so is only illegal for Muslims.  Kartika was caught in a raid on a nightclub in 2007, and according to some reports was the only person arrested (that is, she was the only Muslim they found).

The severity of the sentence was surprising to many.  According to one report, however, "several Islamic lawyers have insisted that the penalty for Kartika is fair, saying she will be whipped with a thin rattan cane that does not cause severe pain."  Amnesty International will probably feel a lot better about this when it learns she is only being whipped with the ladies' cane.

Well, I'm Off to Be Caned! Let's Meet Up for a Beer Afterward! Kartika was actually on her way to prison to be caned when officials suddenly postponed the sentence, saying it would not be "suitable" during Ramadan.  The chief religious prosecutor denied claims that it was because the Prisons Department did not have the "expertise" to cane a prisoner.  "The department would have rejected our request if they did not have the expertise," he said.  Guys, let me know if you do need any tips on how to beat somebody with a stick and I would be happy to fly over there and demonstrate.  I will need a volunteer, preferably a chief religious prosecutor, if you know any.  We can use the childrens' cane since this is just a demonstration.

It seems more likely that the postponement is due to embarrassment resulting from international attention to the fact that Malaysia may beat up a woman for having a beer.  Rather than back down, authorities probably hope that interest will fade so that Kartika can be caned quietly.  But she, like Ms. Hussein in Sudan, is not playing along.  She has said she accepts the punishment, will not appeal it, and would like to have it carried out sooner rather than later.  In fact, she has specifically asked to be caned in public (a request they denied).  In response to a statement by Malaysia's prime minister urging her to appeal, Kartika refused.  "I won't file any appeal," she said.  "Carry on and cane me, don't waste my time."

This strategy may be working, because religious authorities are reportedly considering reviewing the case again, despite the lack of an appeal.  Ramadan ends this year on September 20, so they have a couple of weeks yet to find themselves a way out of the mess.

Link: The Straits Times (Singapore) (July 23, 2009)
Link: The New Straits Times (Malaysia) (Aug. 27, 2009)
Link: The New Straits Times (Aug. 31, 2009)