A Malaysian model was recently sentenced under Malaysian Shariah law to six lashes because of public drinking of alcohol (click here to read the story: http://inthefield.blogs.cnn.com/2009/08/24/model-to-face-caning-feels-regret-shame/). In fact, the woman in question had about three beers with some non-Muslim friends at a hotel, and was caught by Malaysian police. During her prosecution, she asked for leniency, arguing that she was a first-time offender and the mother of two young children. In the past, such an argument would have undoubtedly worked, as alcohol drinkers routinely received light sentences and fines. In the recent years, however, with the rise of religious fever in Muslim countries, Malaysian authorities started prosecuting people for Sharia law offenses, such as the drinking of alcohol, more aggressively, and punishing offenders more severely. This explains the sentence that the model received, and which will be carried out in the upcoming days. The model apologized for her behavior and for the fact that she had caused her family such suffering, and she refused to appeal her sentence choosing instead to be publicly caned.
The rise of religious fervor in Muslim countries is alarming. Shariah law has spread throughout religious communities, and even developed countries such as Malaysia seem to be applying with more rigor. In Pakistan, for example, when the Taliban took over the Swat Valley earlier this year, they immediately imposed Sharia law and banned girls from attending school. Shariah law also applies in Saudi Arabia, in Iran, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, etc., and more modern versions thereof have embedded themselves in modernized societies such as Morocco and Egypt. While some would defend the applicability of Sharia law under the theory of cultural relativism, I find it disturbing nonetheless.
First, under international law, certain things are strictly forbidden. Torturing people or using unnecessary force fall under this category; thus, the public caning of a person would certainly be viewed as prohibited under international law. Second, under international law any kind of discrimination is forbidden, and more specifically, under a multilateral treaty protecting women (CEDAW), discrimination against women is outlawed. Shariah law treats women as subservient to men, and specifically denies them basic rights, such as freedom of movement, freedom of eduction, property rights, etc. Third, the label of cultural relativism has been used to justify questionable practices, such as female genital mutilation, which, in my opinion, represents a form of violence against women. Cultural relativism is an important concept and should retain its place in modern-day theories of international law. However, it should not be used as a tool to approve all sorts of barbaric practices, nor as a way of avoiding the application of general international law that would outlaw such practices. While the public caning of the above mentioned Malaysian model may be justified under the theory of cultural relativism, it is illegal under international law. I believe that international law should play a role in all societies, as the protection of basic human rights spans the globe and reaches all peoples and religions. Shariah law should be reformed to reflect on modern-day international law protections and to embrace such protections, instead of nullifying them and rendering them obsolete.