Sharia authorities in Malaysia's deeply conservative Terengganu State caned two women on Monday on charges of attempting "sexual relations between women," in the latest sign that the country might be sliding into a wider anti-LGBTQ crackdown that mirrors the climate of state-sponsored homophobia currently rearing its head in neighboring Indonesia.
The two women, ages 22 and 32, were detained by local Sharia police for allegedly having sex in a parked car last April. They were fined 3,3000 Malaysian ringgit ($724 USD) and sentenced to six lashes each with a rattan cane—the first such instance of caning to occur for two women accused of lesbian sex in the state.
Watch the VICE News report: This Is What Life is Like Under Sharia Law
Malaysia enforces two separate justice systems, a civil one for non-Muslims and a religious Sharia-based one for Muslims. Nearly 66 percent of Malaysians identify as Muslims, making the Islamic courts system a central fixture in Malaysia's criminal justice system.
This dual-track system is in place nationwide, but authorities are far stricter in Peninsular Malaysia's northwestern states of Perlis and Kedah, as well as in the nearby northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu, where these most-recent canings occurred.
Monday's caning occurred before a crowd of about 100 people packed into the Sharia courthouse. The entire ordeal lasted six minutes, according to witnesses, and the lashes failed to break the skin.
Local Sharia officials, pleased with the proceedings, called the entire thing a success on Monday, with Sallehudin Harun, chairman of the Terengganu Bar Council, telling reporters that "today’s sentence will give the real picture about Sharia caning. I was confused about it before because we imagined that it would be forceful but after seeing it today, it puts the Sharia court in a positive light and this issue shouldn’t be exaggerated. The sentencing went smoothly and did not cause the accused any harm."
Human rights groups thought otherwise. Thilaga Sulathireh, of the local NGO Justice for Sisters, was in the room to witness the caning and said that lawyers like Sallehudin had entirely missed the point. The issue isn't with how hard the executioner struck these women with a cane—it's the fact that two grown women were caned for having consensual sex at all.
“It’s a regression of human rights in Malaysia," Thilaga told The Star. "It’s not about the severity of the caning; corporal punishment is a form of torture regardless of your intention."
Amnesty International Malaysia, in a written statement, said “caning is a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and may amount to torture. People should not live in fear because they are attracted to people of the same sex. The Malaysian authorities must immediately repeal repressive laws, outlaw torturous punishments and ratify the UN Convention Against Torture."
Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a Southeast Asia researcher at Amnesty International, put a finer point on the criticism, saying, "this is a terrible day for LGBTI rights, and indeed human rights, in Malaysia. To inflict this brutal punishment on two people for attempting to engage in consensual, same-sex relations is an atrocious setback in the government’s efforts to improve its human rights record.”
This incident is, in many ways, symbolic of a wider culture war over the role of Islam in people's everyday life that's currently being waged in Malaysia. It's no accident that the caning of these two women occurred in a state under the control of the Islamist Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), or Malaysian Islamic Party, the same people who have been pushing for years for the adoption of a stricter form of Sharia law called hudud that some worry could open the door to stonings and beheadings.
“[The Malaysian Chinese Association] has consistently raised concerns that the implementation of hudud enactments will encroach into the civil sphere and is thus unconstitutional," Heng Seai Kie, the Wanita MCA chairwoman, told The Star. "This latest public caning and shaming in Terengganu under the PAS government is another example of unconstitutional punishments."
Homosexuality is only the latest flash-point in this fight, but it's still one with a long history in Malaysia. Sodomy is still illegal under Malaysian civil and Sharia law, with the accused facing up to 20 years behind bars. That's because of an old colonial-era British law that criminalizes "carnal intercourse against the order of nature"—one that, despite criticism, few political parties seem interesting in reforming. (The same law exists in neighboring Singapore, also once a British colony, as well, but it was rewritten in 2007 allow anal and oral sex between a man and a woman. For same-sex couples though, the law remained.)
This creates an environment where even the harshest critics of what's seen as Sharia overstep by PAS-led governments also refuse to publicly state their support for the LGBTQ community.
Heng, the same woman who was so critical of PAS and the canings above, continued with "Wanita MCA does not support, much less promote the LGBT lifestyle, but neither do we support witch hunting, snoop squads out to bust into people’s personal space and public stigmatization."
All of this is happening as the rest of the country witnesses another iteration of the kinds of anti-LGBTQ paranoia that occurs with shocking frequency in this corner of Southeast Asia. Indonesia, where this VICE office is located, is currently going through a similar crackdown with police using a vaguely worded, and controversial, anti-pornography law to justify raids on gay clubs, hotel rooms, and even private residences.
In Malaysia, the country's deputy health minister Dr Lee Boon Chye recently claimed that LGBTQ individuals were suffering from an "organic disorder"—the craziest part of that statement was that Lee was, at the time, trying to refute against allegations that homosexuality was instead a form of mental illness.
In Penang, a government minister recently ordered the removal of portraits of two LGBTQ activists from a public photo exhibition, telling local media "I have consistently repeated in parliament that we do not support the promotion of LGBT culture in Malaysia." And in Kuala Lumpur, local police raided a popular gay bar called Blue Boy—the first time in nearly three decades of operation—in an attempt to "mitigate the LGBT culture from spreading into our society.”
Taken together, it's a chilling environment for Malaysia's LGBTQ community. Numan Afifi, of the Pelangi Campaign, told CNN that these raids and canings were creating a culture of fear.
"It's very uncomfortable," Numan said. "[People are] feeling very oppressed right now. People are afraid because this is the first time that two women are being caned for sexual acts. We don't know what's going to happen in the future. That's the general feeling."