Three Muslim women who were the first in Malaysia to be caned for illicit sex feel the penalty was an opportunity for them to repent, according to media reports.
Legal commentators have said that the Islamic courts – which operate in parallel to the civil system in Malaysia – are becoming increasingly confident, threatening Malaysia's status as a secular nation.
The Sharia courts have been clamping down on rarely enforced religious laws that apply to Muslim Malays who dominate the population – including a ban alcohol and sex between unmarried couples.
The caning has outraged civil and human rights groups and revived speculation that conservative Islamists, who advocate harsh punishment, are gaining influence.
Prison authorities caned the women on Feb. 9 after an Islamic Shariah court issued the penalty. The three women, aged 17-25, said they turned themselves in after feeling guilty for sleeping with their boyfriends before marriage and getting pregnant, The Star and the New Straits Times newspapers reported.
Malaysian Deputy Premier Muhyiddin Yassin said many, including Malaysians, were horrified at the idea of a woman being caned because they did not know how it was done.
"The caning punishment meted out by the Shariah court is legal and how the international community looks at it, is up to them. But I believe it is important that authorities make an effort to explain the procedure because it is far different from the impression many have," he said.
"While the caning sentence meted out by civil courts can cause hurt and sometimes even death, caning according to Shariah law is light. It is more to educate and remind Muslims to honor and abide by their religion," he said after chairing the Cabinet committee on human capital development.
Yassin defended the caning saying it was "far lighter" than what some people might imagine. "The punishment is legitimate and in accordance with the law," he said.
Human rights groups have condemned the caning, saying it is a cruel and degrading punishment and discriminates against Muslim women because Malaysian civil law – which applies to non-Muslims – bans the caning of women.
The women were fully clothed and sitting on a stool. Two of them received six strokes and the third was given four strokes on their backs from a thin rattan cane administered at Kajang Prison.
Caning of men for such offences as rape, drug smuggling and staying illegally in the country is common. It is administered with a thick rattan stick on bare buttocks, causing severe pain and leaving scars.
The three became the first women in the country to be flogged for committing Shariah offences.
A Shariah court had recently also sentenced a Muslim model, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, to be caned for being caught drinking beer in a hotel nightclub in July last year. The sentence of six cane strokes against the 33-year-old mother-of-two has not yet been executed.
Her case, which was to have been the first time a woman was caned under Islamic law in Malaysia, is still under review after she was given a last-minute reprieve amid intense worldwide media and public outcry.
Malaysia's Bar Council has said it was "shocking" that the caning of the three women went ahead while the Kartika case was unresolved.
Hamidah Marican, Executive Director of an NGO called Sisters in Islam (SIS), said the case of the three women constituted further discrimination against Muslim women in Malaysia.
"It violates Constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination as the whipping of women under Shariah Criminal Offences legislation contradicts civil law where women are not punishable by caning under Section 289 of the Criminal Procedure Code," she was quoted as saying by 'Star' online.
Bar Council Chairman Ragunath Kesavan appealed to the government to immediately review and abolish all forms of punishment involving whipping and to comply with international norms and principles on it.
The 17-year-old told reporters that she surrendered to Islamic authorities after her prematurely born child died. She is now serving a six-month prison sentence.
"I know I have sinned, and I have to be punished. Strangely however, I felt that the caning was not a form of punishment but was an opportunity for me to repent and return to the right path," The Star quoted her as saying.
She has already married her boyfriend, who has also been caned and jailed over the offence. The other women, who have one young child each, are planning to marry their partners, who have also been caned, after they are released.
"On the day I was caned, I was scared but, at the same time, I knew I deserved it and was willing to take the punishment," said one of the women, a 25-year-old who went by the name of "Ayu."
She told the New Straits Times that the punishment – administered while they were fully clothed and by a female prison officer wielding a thin rattan cane – did not hurt.
"Those out there who are having sex before marriage should really consider the consequences and not only think about momentary pleasure," she told the daily.
The three women said they turned themselves in to religious authorities after being wracked by guilt over having pre-marital sex.
"Ayu" has a one-year-old daughter with her boyfriend, who she plans to marry, and the other two women also gave birth out of wedlock.
Human rights campaigners, who were stunned by the caning of the three women which had not been foreshadowed by authorities, were skeptical over the comments published in several Malaysian newspapers.
"These three women are just normal people who have been surrounded by all kinds of legal mumbo jumbo and pressured into agreeing to be caned," one activist told AFP, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
A Prison Department official confirmed the women's comments, made at a news conference at the women's prison outside Kuala Lumpur to local, government-linked media under the watch of authorities. He said they were reluctant to speak to other media. It could not be confirmed whether they were speaking voluntarily. A request with the department for interviews is pending.
Malaysia has a two-tier justice system. Shariah courts deal with personal matters for Muslims, who account for about two-thirds of the country's 28 million people, while non-Muslims – many of whom are ethnic Chinese and Indians – go to civil courts.
(Note: The above photograph was allowed to be taken at Kajang Prison in Kuala Lumpur, and depicts officials demonstrating how caning is employed.)
Let me very, very clear: I abhor caning, and view it as legalized torture — but I am a Westerner. It remains up to the citizens of Malaysia to decide what their culture, their government does or does not do in the name of justice and religion. However, as citizens of the world we have a solemn responsibility to voice our unflagging support of ALL people who are endangered or abused. But be very careful oh-oft-arrogant American before you condemn: Make sure your own land is in order before you judge the land of another.
— The Curator