Last week, two Malaysian Muslim women were caned in public for attempting to have sexual relations in a car, as a result of both religious and civil laws which make homosexual behaviour illegal. The unnamed women, ages 22 and 32, had been arrested back in April by Islamic enforcement officers in Terengganu, one of Malaysia’s most conservative states and in May, and both pled guilty to having “sexual relations between women,” according to the Washington Post. The punishment took place in front of over 100 individuals, and each were caned six times across the back at the Syariah High Court in the Malaysian state of Terengganu.
This saddening act of oppression against these women and the LGBT community has greatly impacted the reputation of Islam, according to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. “[The act has] tarnished Islam’s reputation as a merciful and compassionate religion,” he stated.
However, according to Mujahid Yusof Rawa, a minister within the Prime Minister’s office, he informed reporters that the government under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had been elected just this past May, refuses to recognize the LGBT community. According to the Washington Post, their aim is instead focused on “helping LGBT people toward the ‘right path’ through campaigns, seminars, and camps”.
Islamic officials continue to defend the actions of the Syariah High Court, reiterating that the intention had not been to injure the two women physically, but rather aimed to “educate them so they will repent” on their sins, according to the Independent. The whipping or caning was described by the Star newspaper to be more of a “forceful tap”, rather than what one might expect from such an event. The Terengganu Bar Council Chairman Sallehudin Harun also told the Star that he believed the issue at hand “shouldn’t be exaggerated,” and that “the sentencing went smoothly and did not cause the accused any harm.”
However, regardless of severity, corporal punishment rarely, if ever, has a legitimate reason, and should become a thing of the past. According to Al Jazeera, Thilaga Sulathireh, of the group Justice for Sisters who witnessed the caning, stated, “It’s a regression of human rights in Malaysia. It’s not about the severity of the caning. Corporal punishment is a form of torture regardless of your intention.” It seems that this instance of public shaming is recognizant of forms of torture used in the distant past – definitely not of the twenty-first century. The president of the Malaysian Bar, George Varughese, also expressed his agreement, stating that such punishments are “barbaric and inflict lasting psychological harm,” according to the Washington Post.
It is important to note that under Malaysian civil law, caning is already banned. It is, however, allowed in certain Islamic states – Terengganu being one of them. This is because Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, where the civil law applies to all citizens, while Islamic criminal and family law applies the Muslim population which makes up about 60% of the population of Malaysia. According to Sky News, this instance of punishment, i.e., a public caning, is not only the first of its kind, but is also the first time that anybody has been convicted for same-sex relations in the state.
While many Islamic officials continue to defend this act of oppression against the LGBT community, many have called into question the growing intolerance of LGBT individuals in Malaysia over the course of the last few months. Some Malaysian women’s groups, specifically Justice for Sisters and Sisters in Islam are calling for an extensive review of Sharia law. Others are urging a similar review, and for Malaysia to ratify the UN Convention against Torture. Chhoa-Howard said in a statement, “People should not live in fear because of who they are and who they love – the Malaysia authorities must immediately repeal repressive laws, outlaw torturous punishments and ratify the UN Convention against Torture,” according to the Washington Post. Even among these terrible events, hope remains that soon we may see great change that will alter the rhetoric in Malaysia surrounding a community that has been oppressed for far too long already.
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