Brothers, be just to your sisters

By Zainah Anwar (The Star)

Islam itself means submission to the will of God, but the submission of the self to faith and belief must be attained through conviction and reason, not through coercion and duress.

SO, Malaysia makes international news again. And for the wrong reason again. This time for the Kuantan Syariah Court’s decision to flog Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno with six strokes of the rotan for drinking a glass of beer with her husband in a hotel in Cherating two years ago.

Sudan is in the news too with the arrest of a journalist, Lubna Ahmad Hussein, and 12 other women for wearing trousers, deemed to be “inappropriate dress and conduct” under that country’s Islamic criminal law. Ten of the women were already found guilty and flogged with 10 lashes each.

Then there is the news from the Maldives that almost 150 women face public flogging after being convicted for indulging in extramarital sex. Interestingly, only 50 men face the same punishment.

What is it about men who want to implement Islamic law that they pick on women to shame and defame?

As Kartika surrenders herself to her fate, I wonder how the Pahang religious authorities are planning to execute the six lashes. Will the Prime Minister who comes from Pahang and the Cabinet yet again intervene in the enforcement of the draconian Syariah Criminal Offences law in this country?

There is much public debate now along the usual divide. Islamists who support the punishment in the name of Islam and others who are outraged on several different grounds:

> That the punishment does not reflect the gravity of the offence;

> That as a first-time offender who also pleaded guilty as charged, Kartika should not have been punished with the maximum sentence;

> Flogging is a violation of human rights as it constitutes a cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment;

> Flogging women under Syariah law constitutes yet another form of discrimination against Muslim women in this country as women are exempted from flogging under civil law;

> Neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith prescribes any form of punishment for drinking alcohol;

> There is no consensus on flogging of women or for alcohol consumption. Only three states –Pahang, Perlis and Kelantan – provide for such punishment;

> Islamic teachings emphasise forgiveness, compassion and positive personal transformation. So why punish in the first instance?

What is distressing about all these stories of women being flogged for alleged transgressions of Islamic teachings is the seeming determination of those who rule in the name of Islam to project a miso­gynistic, punitive and vindictive God.

And yet, more than any other religion, Muslims invoke the name of God, the compassionate and the merciful, numerous times a day as we say our daily prayers, read verses of the Quran, and before we start any action. Alas, all too often, this invocation of God’s name has become meaningless and has no relation to how we live our lives and treat others in the name of religion.

As Karen Armstrong said in her public lecture here two years ago, we have become so obsessed about being right in our doctrine, instead of being just in our practice.

No amount of explaining – that Syariah caning is not supposed to cause injury, it is moderate, the caning officer is not supposed to lift his arm above his shoulder – is going to take away the pain and humiliation of such a cruel and degrading treatment.

In many Muslim countries, this flogging is done in public. The Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women submitted a report to the UN Com­mittee Against Torture listing the abuses that occurred in Aceh and other districts in Indonesia which implement Syariah law where women were arrested and flogged for their dressing, for being out at night, for being with men not related to them.

The victimisation of women and the absence of rule of law are common trends in countries that implement moral policing laws.

That the prisons in the Maldives hold more women than men waiting to be flogged is no surprise. Men get away simply by denying they had sex with the women. But women could get pregnant and this is used as evidence of illicit sex, or the patriarchs in their family would have turned them in; while boys get away by just being boys.

The situation is similar in Pakistan, too, when the hudud law on zina was enforced. Over a thousand women are in prison for illicit sex and hardly any men. Even women who reported rape were detained as their police report was seen as confession of illicit sex because they were not able to produce four pious males who witnessed the rape.

Women’s groups in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are jointly mobilising against Kartika’s sentencing, fearful of a precedent set that will have wide impact not just on Malaysian Muslim women, but also on the hundreds of thousands of Muslim women from neighbouring countries who travel, work or reside in Malaysia.

Once again, the questions arise. What kind of Malaysia do we want to live in, and project to the rest of the world? What kind of Islam do we want to practise? What kind of God do we want to envision? A God of kindness, compassion, beauty and goodness or a cruel, punitive and misogynistic God?

Does 1Malaysia include equality between men and women and equality between Muslim women and women of other faith?

The ever-so-often public outcry over arrests and abuses under the Syariah Criminal Offences laws show a clear disconnect between how the state views its role in controlling the lives of Muslims and how the citizens perceive their entitlements to privacy and personal choices.

If the Syariah Criminal Offences laws are implemented in full, Malay­sia’s prisons would collapse. The vast list of crimes range from holding an opinion contrary to a fatwa, to possessing a book contrary to Hukum Syarak, and behaving in an indecent manner in a public place.

As religion is a state matter, different states have also added different offences. In Selangor, smoking is a crime. In Terengganu, it is a crime for a woman to reveal any part of her aurat that arouses passion in the public space or for a virgin woman to abscond from the guardianship of her parents without a reasonable justification valid under Hukum Syarak.

Is it the duty of the state – in order to bring about a moral society – to turn all “sins” into “crimes against the state”? Should the state extend the long arm of the law to what should be best left to the religious conscience of the individual?

We all know that faith comes from the heart. Islam itself means submission to the will of God, but the submission of the self to faith and belief must be attained through conviction and reason, not through coercion and duress.

Compelling obedience to God in this manner could suggest a failure in the way Islam is taught in this country. Is the solution then to turn to politicians to legislate on our lives and compel our obedience? Or is it for us to search for more effective ways to teach Islam, to imbibe Islamic values so that obedience to God comes from a genuine act of faith, belief and submission? Is it beyond our ability to lead the ummah to God’s way by love, beauty, kindness and compassion rather than through fear, coercion and punishment?