Mother of all sins: the caning of Kartika Sari Dewi

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.

5 thoughts on “Mother of all sins: the caning of Kartika Sari Dewi

  1. I see alcohol as a concrete example of the problem of Malaysia’s system within a system: syariah law for all Muslims in addition to the common law for all. Unlike Thailand, alcohol is kept fairly low-key in Malaysia — no billboards or TV ads and heavily taxed. However, it’s not difficult to find people drinking beer on the street at a hawker stall or gerai, or in a bar or nightclub. The religious leaders don’t want Muslims to drink alcohol at all, which, as far as I can see, is a matter subject to interpretation. The two-speed legal system thus provides for the caning of Muslims who drink when non-Muslims are drinking all around them. It is a clear example of not all people being equal before the law. For the sake of equality, either all alcohol should be banned (which would lead to a massive black market in criminalised alcohol) or the power of religious leaders to scold their brethren should be limited to ranting sermons. The rule of law is essential to the function of modern democracy; where two differing laws sit side by side, there are effectively two separate states sharing the soil.

    The interest in the rattan is little more than puerile, and the interest engendered in the caning of a woman is nothing less that sadistic voyeurism. Of course, the psychological harm is more severe than the physical, and Malaysia’s cultural sensitivity to shame, especially a woman’s shame (hide her, veil her), has shown itself to be a powerful tool for political as well as religious control.

  2. Gareth,

    I wonder whether PAS MP Dr. Lolo’s comments about whipping restaurant owners and staff, and the entire Malaysian airline cabin crew for being complicit in the serving of alcohol within a mixed-religious premise made any sense to anyone. Honestly speaking, it didn’t make much sense to me at first. But then I’m recalled of the Zouk raid where Muslims (mainly women) were arrested in a nightclub while non-Muslims were told to continue “having fun”. Women and girls, and individuals whom the government sees no political or financial intrest in are the easiest targets.

    I don’t think we’ll ever see the day for either solution – banning alcohol altogether, or restricting the legal powers of religious officials. Banning alcohol and other un-Islamic elements can make Malaysia a very unpleasant place to live in. Mostly because I believe that such powers to control over personal pursuits and privacy have been proven to easily corrupt.

  3. I like see those who claim that “whipping hardly inflicts any pain on the offender’s body” to be whipped to prove this claim.

    Sometimes, I am glad to be a Malaysian non-muslim (I suppose at this point the government will tell me I have no right to comment on syariah law). Though I am not the expert, I think the Malaysia’s syariah law is a mix of cultural and Islamic laws – which could always be modified by a fatwa or two. Would it not be better to let those who wish to practice a religion interpret it and follow as they wish than to subject it to strict and harsh rules decided a council of man? Adherence to a religion is a personal choice and should not be imposed externally.

    But then again, religion is not a personal choice in Malaysia (which supposedly claims to allow freedom of religion). If you are a Muslim, you can never convert out – or else you get sent to religious detention camps till you repent. It is unfair given that most of us inherit our parent’s religion at birth without the opportunity to make an informed choice. If you are old enough to drink, smoke and drive then you are old enough to choose which religion you want to follow (or none at all).

  4. @arma,

    “I like see those who claim that “whipping hardly inflicts any pain on the offender’s body” to be whipped to prove this claim.”

    haha! I very much agree!

    In Malaysia, like many other countries throughout the world, the private becomes the business of the public and the state. The browbeating of individuals become the means of those in political power to serve their self-righteous ends. Why punish a woman who did not harm anyone from having a beer and not men blatantly guilty of corruption and possibly murder (Razak Baginda)? If deterrence is the issue, wouldn’t it be more harmful if a murderer is allowed to go scot-free?

  5. $5,000 fine for drinking beer plus 5 strokes of the rattan? You must be kidding, this Pahang Shyriah court Officer (note that I didn’t call him a Judge cos its not befitting him) should work in Iran or Taliban country. What about 900+ cases of men who raped their daughters. Step daughters fred worse. Death by a thousand unkindest cuts. Why is it that women are always assumed to be second class and a petty sin (in their opinion if drinking beer is) like that is so trivia, abolish that court, get rid of that son-of-a-bitch who calls himself a judge.

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