“In Shariah (Islamic law) caning, it is not meant to hurt the person. It is to educate the person. Therefore it’s not painful, it’s not harsh” says Muslim Lawyers Association deputy president Abdul Rahim Sinwan.
Abdul Rahim refers to the recent controversy in Malaysia where two Muslim women were caned six times each (on the back with a light rattan cane by female prison officers) for allegedly attempting to have “lesbian sex” in a publicly parked car. They were caned in full view of 100 witnesses in the Shariah court in the conservative northeast state of Terengganu. Despite the public caning, Abdul Rahim maintains that “humiliation is out of the question”.[i] He adds that, the 22-year-old and 32-year-old women, “did not cry or scream but “showed remorse…Repentance is the ultimate aim for their sin” (in fact, only the younger one was sobbing).[ii]
Public outcry led to a chorus of condemnation of this first-time “conviction for same-sex relations” and public caning of women. Thilaga Sulathireh, from the transgender-advocacy NGO, Justice for Sisters who witnessed the caning, “was shocked by the public spectacle” amounting to torture and cruelty that violated the rights of the women. Legislator Charles Santiago said, “the government must repeal all laws that criminalise homosexuality” (with reference to Section 377, a British colonial legacy). Most pertinently, the illegality of the punishment, despite the dual-track legal system that Muslims in Malaysia are subjected to (Federal or civil law and Islamic or family and personal law), was called to question as it runs counter to Constitutional provisions on the fundamental liberties of its rakyat (citizens).[iii] The Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s initial reaction was concern that the caning “gave a bad impression of Islam and did not reflect the religion’s quality of justice”. He later maintains that, Malaysia will not recognise LGBT culture or same-sex marriage as these are “Western values”.[iv]
To navigate one’s way around the morass of secular and religious ethics involved in the public hurting and humiliation of two Muslim Malaysian women (which sets an insidious nod of approval to state-sponsored sexual and gender-based violence), is to discern what it means to be a person created in the image of Allah or God. What moral compass affords the promise of “sensitivity”, “serenity” and “sincerity”, as exhorted in Amoris Laetitia (2016), the post-synodal apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis on pastoral care for the family that comprises human persons.[v] To “avoid a cold bureaucratic morality in dealing with [irregular situations such as same-sex desires or unions]…pastoral discernment [should be] filled with merciful love…[that] lead us to ‘open our hearts to those living in the outermost fringes of society’” [paragraph 312].
Fringed within the heteronormative and heterosexist constructs of the state, family and religious communities, LGBT persons are treated inhumanely because they are rendered inhuman particularly if they are brazen enough to exercise their right to (irregular) sexual pleasure rather than adopt celibacy or heterosexuality. There is no compassionate caning. There is only cruel torture meted out by those who can, not because they care.
[i] Palansamy, Y. (2018, September 2). Terengganu duo publicly caned six times over lesbian sex attempt. Malay Mail. Retrieved from https://www.malaymail.com/s/1668766/terengganu-duo-publicly-caned-six-times-over-lesbian-sex-attempt
[ii] Al Jazeera. (2018, September 4). Malaysia: Women caned in public for lesbian act. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/malaysia-women-caned-public-lesbian-act-180903155056114.html
[iii] Sreenevasan, A. and Ding, J. (2018, September 18). Terengganu caning: Was it constitutional? Malay Mail. Retrieved from
[iv] LGBT or same-sex marriage not for Malaysia, says Dr M. (2018, September 22). The Star Online. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/09/22/lgbt-or-samesex-marriage-not-for-malaysia-says-dr-m/
[v] Amoris Laetitia (2016). Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf