Authorities in Malaysia caned three Muslim women for having extramarital sex, making them the first women in the country to receive such punishment under Islamic law, an official said Wednesday.
The caning of women has fueled debate about whether Islamic conservatism was intruding into people's personal lives in this moderate Muslim-majority country. Another woman, Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a 32-year-old mother of two, was sentenced to caning last year for drinking beer.
Kartika's sentence has not been carried out, but authorities at a women's prison near Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 9 caned three other Muslim women who had been convicted in an Islamic Shariah court for having sex outside of marriage, according to a Home Ministry official. They did not explain why the punishment was only announced Wednesday.
Each woman received between four and six strokes of a rattan cane, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced the caning earlier Wednesday. He did not release details of their identities or when they had been sentenced but said that one of the women was released last week after spending a month in prison.
Home Ministry officials did not describe where on their bodies they received the strikes, but authorities have previously said that the caning of women would be done with a thin stick on the back - not the buttocks.
The punishment for women is supposed to be largely symbolic rather than aimed at causing pain, unlike the caning of rapists and drug smugglers with a thick rattan stick on bare buttocks that causes the skin to break and leave scars.
Officials at the women's prison who could comment on the caning were not immediately available.
It was not clear whether the men who had sex with the women were also caned, but the caning of male convicts occurs regularly for a wide range of crimes.
Kartika, the woman convicted of drinking beer, has insisted she wants to get the punishment over with, but government authorities said they needed to train personnel to properly carry out the penalty first.
Kartika's case also sparked concerns about whether conservative Islamists, who advocate harsh punishments, are gaining influence over Malaysia's justice system.
Malaysia follows a dual-track justice system. Shariah laws apply to Muslims, who account for nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 28 million people, in all personal matters. Non-Muslims - Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and other minorities - are covered by civil laws and are not subject to Islamic courts.