Six lashes—that’s Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno’s sentence for quaffing a beer with a few friends in a Malaysian bar. Kartika, a part-time model, will be the first woman caned there, and her case has divided the Southeast Asian country. Drinking isn’t technically illegal in Malaysia, but since Kartika is Muslim she is subject to Islamic sharia law, under which the consumption of alcohol is a punishable offence.
Moderates and non-Muslims say the ruling establishes a dangerous precedent by disregarding human rights and undercutting the mainstream Malaysian legal process. According to Hamidah Marican, executive director of Sisters in Islam, which works to strengthen women’s rights in Malaysia, “Kartika’s case has . . . caused damage to Malaysia’s reputation as a model Muslim country.”
Meanwhile, Islamists support the decision, saying it’s needed to deter others from breaking sharia law. “Sharia in Malaysia is not strong, so maybe Kartika is the first person to help spark the needed change,” Shah Rizul Ayuni Zulkiply, spokesperson for the conservative University Malaya Student Representative Council, told a Malaysian news website. “Now [young people] will know what the punishment is if they do the same as Kartika.”
Kartika has refused to appeal, but she is protesting her punishment in another manner. She wants to be caned in public—not behind closed doors in a prison, as the sharia court plans to do—in order to show the world the senselessness of her government’s actions. “My daughter wants to be whipped in public, not in prison,” says Kartika’s father, Shukarno Abdul Mutalib. “We’re supposed to be an open country. She wants the world to see.”
Shukarno says Kartika will get over the physical pain quickly, but he’s worried about the long-term effect the lashing may have on his country’s image. “I’m in an Islamic country. I must obey the rules here,” he says. “[But] our government must work hard to show the world that they’re not the Taliban.”