Last month, three women were caned in Malaysia for extramarital sex. The Malaysian government said that these canings were carried out under sharia, Islamic law. These women were the first to receive this kind of punishment. Many in Malaysia and in human rights groups have condemned these canings and have called for Malaysia to stop using this kind of corporal punishment.
This story for me raises a number of issues related to Islamic law. First, it raises the question of what exactly Islamic law means for people nowadays. If these women were in fact receiving a punishment in accordance with religious law, is it really possible that all the conditions were met?According to Asifa Quraishi, a law professor at UW-Madison, who was on the Inside Islam radio show Women and Shariah, there are specific conditions that must be met in order for an individual to receive corporal punishment for extramarital sex that include having four people testify that they witnessed the actual act. They also have to concur on all the details. How likely is it that these three women were seen in this situation?
Second, punishments in Islam are harsh because they are meant to be deterrents. That is why there are so many conditions that must be met for a punishment to be carried out. I would argue that this high bar of proof means that in theory the punishments should rarely occur.
Third, there is a tendency in Western discourse to imply that Islamic law is backwards and barbaric. My problem with this is that there is an assumption that one legal code, i.e. Western legal codes, are inherently more humane when in reality there are flaws in those systems as well. The focus should be on determining whether these punishments are in fact carried out in accordance with Islamic law and, if not, making sure they do.
These canings are unfortunate because these women may have been used for political aims since the validity of the ruling is questionable. These specific cases raise many concerns about how Islamic laws are understood and implemented and add to the negative image of Islam.
What do you think of this story? Should the canings have been carried out? What do you think of Islamic law? Please leave your comments below.