In Malaysia, where we are swamped with mixed messages from religious authorities and pop song lyrics, those of us lucky enough to find love are bound to run into trouble. Just a week short of Valentine’s day, three women and three men were caned under Shariah law for committing “illicit sex.” This marks the materialization of a long threat to punish Muslim Malaysians for moral crimes – prior to this, no one had been caned for unlawful sexual behavior. Curiously, the public was informed more than a week after their sentence was meted out. News of the women was released first, followed by reports of the three men a day after. Why?
The piecemeal fashion of the reports can be interpreted as strategic sensationalism: the level of shock raised at the announcement places the women squarely at the centre of attention and scrutiny, while at the same time pushes them in comparison with another woman, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, who has been awaiting her whipping for consuming beer for several months,. By making their caning secret, the Shariah court has conveniently sidestepped the criticisms raised by women’s groups and human rights advocates that had in some way “interfered” with Kartika’s case.
In a way, one could read this as a defiant act by the religious authorities who cannot bear being publicly challenged in spite of their institutionalized power and influence over the Malays in the country. Another curious twist to this story is that the women admitted to their offense, yet they received the maximum punishment despite officially declaring their guilt. Do I detect hastiness and eagerness on the legal authority’s behalf to first condemn then punish harshly those who seek compassion?
As expected, this has divided the Malaysian public into roughly two main groups: those who argue that caning (or any Shariah-sanctioned punishment) is completely justified because it is God’s law, and the other who are find corporal punishment degrading and thus a human rights abuse. I for one am critical about the way religious authorities in the country pick and choose who they decide to discipline, usually from a list in which sexual non-conformists rate the highest in their bad books. Too often, sexual immorality is intertwined with class: cases of close proximity (khalwat) involve couples caught in budget hotels, in cars parked in quiet places, and in public parks, couples who cannot afford to marry or hire a room at an expensive hotel, a place very rarely ventured by the moral police.
I have also thought about how this issue might present itself in the ever-expanding hall of moral witch-hunting that others may view as making an issue bigger than it really is. At least that is what Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein believes. After all, compared to more repressive forms of controlling women in other parts of the world, the caning punishment had left no visible scars and was willingly received by the women. Does this still make a big deal? The answer is yes. The policing of female sexuality is a reality for many women, and as most forms of such a control that is couched on moralistic terms, we find ourselves on a very slippery slope down the ever-expanding definitions of what is moral and immoral. Recurring examples of unabashed misogyny and moral hypocrisy in Malaysia have left an indelible damage on the public’s confidence in the guardians of the social order that even when we are reassured that the caned were not hurt or wounded, such statements are always taken with a pinch of salt.