Two Malaysian Muslim women convicted of attempting to have sex in a car were caned on Monday in a rare public whipping that was denounced by some politicians and rights groups.
Lawyers and activists said the women, aged 22 and 32, were seated on stools facing the judges and given six strokes from a light rattan cane on their backs by female prison officers. More than 100 people witnessed the caning in an Islamic court in the conservative northeast state of Terengganu.
The women, dressed in white headscarves and clothing, did not cry or scream but “showed remorse”, said Muslim Lawyers’ Association Deputy President Abdul Rahim Sinwan.
Unlike caning under civil laws, the punishment under Islamic law is not painful or harsh and was meant to educate the women, said Sinwan.
“Repentance is the ultimate aim for their sin,” he said.
“People should not live in fear because they are attracted to people of the same sex,” Amnesty International Malaysia said in a statement.
The two unidentified women were discovered by officials in a parked car in April and sentenced last month to six strokes of a cane and an $800 fine each after pleading guilty.
It was the first conviction for same-sex relations and the first time a caning had been carried out in public in Terengganu, Satiful Bahri Mamat, a member of the state executive council, told the Reuters news agency.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 31 million people are Muslims who are governed by Islamic courts in family, marriage and personal issues.
Thilaga Sulathireh, from the group Justice for Sisters who witnessed the caning, said she was shocked by the public spectacle. She said Malaysian laws were inconsistent because civil laws prohibit corporal punishment against female prisoners.
“It’s a regression of human rights in Malaysia. It’s not about the severity of the caning. Corporal punishment is a form of torture regardless of your intention,” she said.
Legislators also joined in the chorus of condemnation.
“Islam teaches us to look after the dignity of every human being. And that mercy is preferable to punishment,” opposition lawmaker Khairy Jamaluddin tweeted.
Legislator Charles Santiago said the government must repeal all laws that criminalise homosexuality.
“And this is because we really need to make sure that no one is publicly caned let alone because of their sexuality,” he said.
The caning occurred amid a climate of fear and discrimination against Malaysia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. A few weeks ago, authorities removed the portraits of two LGBT rights activists from a public exhibition.
Malaysia religious minister Mujahid Yusuf later said the government does not support the promotion of LGBT culture.