The Mother of All Sins: Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno’S Caning

They say that money is the root of all evil. At times, I couldn’t agree more. But now I hear that alcohol consumption is the “mother of all sins”. I’m not going into detail about which sins are worse, but more on the earthly consequences of such sins as defined by the male religious elite.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno from Singapore had apparently committed the “mother of all sins” last week and now faces a sentence by the Shariah court of six strokes of the cane. The part-time model and mother of two was reported to be caught drinking beer in a hotel lounge in the east Malaysian state of Pahang. Two others have been charged as well, but their cases are currently pending appeal. Many are outraged by the severity of the punishment, while some find it fitting for the gravity of the crime.

The shock over Kartika’s decision not to appeal elicited a media frenzy over how her punishment will be meted out. On Sunday, Malaysian newspapers analyzed in great detail the act of whipping, comparing the differences between criminal whipping and Shariah whipping, and even the dimensions of the “Shariah” cane (it happens to be 1.22 m long and 1.25 cm thick, in case you’re wondering). One report even claims that Shariah whipping hardly inflicts any pain on the offender’s body, and that it is also much more merciful than civil corporal punishment, with the headline that reads, “A sentence not all it’s been whipped up to be”.

Uncoiling faster than a snake striking, the whip lunges forward, tail singing in the air. Its journey ends with a crack as distinct as lightning, punctuated by a scream so profound it rips the sound barrier. Could this be the syariah whipping that theoretically awaits part-time model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, sentenced to six lashes for consuming alcohol?

Er… no.

The reality of whipping under syariah is that it is actually rather light. In fact, the term “whipping” is inaccurate, because in Malaysia it is done with a rotan (rattan cane). It is not flogging or flaying, and broken skin is not allowed, says Wahid (not his real name), who metes out 100 strokes every week as a Kajang Prison whipping officer.

Under the Criminal Procedure Code, caning is physical punishment in the strictest sense and the officer must use as much force as he can muster. So, the power behind an ordinary criminal whipping (in civil law) comes from the wrist, arm, shoulder and the swing. But, for syariah offences, it comes from a fairly limp wrist.

A number of uneasy issues emerge from reports of Kartika’s case. First, there seem to be a tendency to trivialize Shariah whipping as simply “not painful” and mainly as a means to deter other Muslims from consuming alcohol. And so it appears that Kartika’s psychological torment is not worthy of consideration, as far as many are concerned. In fact, that is exactly what she deserves, says one prison whipping officer:

“Syariah whipping is more like caning naughty schoolboys. In syariah, the punishment is not in the force of the whipping, but to bring shame.”

Allow me to digress a little here: in Malaysia, a culture of shaming pervades the policing of private lives of people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. But invariably, women suffer the most from public shaming–our so-called honor and reputation torn to pieces. How is it different for men and women you ask? Recently, a Malaysian Muslim man was jailed for distributing photos of his wife and himself engaged in sexual intercourse online to intentionally shame his wife. While he couldn’t evade civil laws against public obscenity, he was sure that he could evade society’s law of the social stigmatizing. Shame, whether as a result of stigmatization or public punishment, is a form of psychological torture that can be more debilitating, annihilating, and silencing for the tortured.

It isn’t surprising then that Kartika wanted to get on with her life as quickly as possible by forgoing an appeal for leniency. However, her decision is interpreted differently by the media, which leads me to raise a related issue: blind faith. Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of Malaysia’s Islamic political party, PAS, has been reported to “commend” Kartika’s uncritical attitude towards the court’s decision. He attributed her “blind acceptance” to a number of factors, among them a lack of knowledge of the Qur’an and of the religion. Funny, Muslims in Malaysia can be accused of having little knowledge about Islam even when they start challenging religious leaders and certain interpretations of the Qur’an!

True, an unquestioning approach to the court’s decision masks the more urgent issues, such as whether caning for drinking in public is mentioned in the Qur’an (it isn’t), or if women are subject to the same punishment as men for consuming alcohol, or whether corporal punishment is really an effective deterrent. In the meantime, these questions are left unanswered as the public are made to obsess over Shariah whipping and the impending fate of Kartika Sari Dewi.

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