Mother fights laws of faith for children as civil court overturns Islamic ruling

Liz Gooch; 10/4/10; (2 Items)

Through most of their 17-year marriage, she and her husband observed rituals that she considered integral to their Hindu faith. Each morning they would pray before a shrine and on Fridays they would fast. During festivals they wore traditional outfits to attend their local temple. Those were traditions that M. Indira Gandhi, a teacher in the town of Ipoh, Malaysia, assumed they would pass on to their three children. But nearly a year ago she was stunned to discover her husband had converted to Islam. Her surprise turned to anger when she found out that, without consulting her, he had also converted their children. He then won custody of them through an Islamic court. “If he wants to convert, OK,” Ms Gandhi said. “But these are children that were born from both of us.”

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Her husband’s actions have left Ms Gandhi navigating the conflicting jurisdictions of Malaysia’s religious and civil courts in a case that has challenged the authority of sharia courts in the predominantly Muslim country.
Under Malaysia’s two-tier judicial system, sharia courts handle family law cases involving Muslims, while secular courts handle those involving non-Muslims. But the lines have become blurred in cases involving interfaith disputes. Religious minorities have complained that they are at a disadvantage when their cases fall to an Islamic court.
Non-Muslims cannot attend such courts, even if the case concerns their child.
The court granted Ms Gandhi’s husband, Muhammad Ridzuan Abdullah, custody of their children last year. But last month, in what some called a landmark ruling, a civil court overturned the sharia court’s decision and transferred custody back to Ms Gandhi.
Last week Mr Abdullah failed in an attempt to obtain a stay order on that ruling.
Ms Gandhi then asked the court for permission to contest the children’s conversion. The Ipoh High Court is scheduled to hand down its ruling on April 30.
One of her lawyers, K. Shanmuga, said he could not recall an instance when a civil court had overturned a child’s conversion to Islam. Once a child is converted and their identity card is stamped Islam there are far-reaching consequences. Mr Shanmuga said children who were converted must study Islam at school and were subject to sharia.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer and president of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia, said he believed some parents had converted their children to gain a “tactical advantage” in custody disputes.
In recent years, he said, civil courts had ruled that a convert to Islam was entitled to take a custody dispute to a sharia court, even if the other partner was not Muslim.
Lawyers say such a court is more likely to award custody to the Muslim parent when the children have been converted.
Once a person has become a Muslim, it is difficult to change back. It requires permission from the sharia court.
‘Anybody who steps out of Islam, the sharia court and the general Muslim population frown on,” said Mohammad Hashim Karnali, an Islamic law expert and the chief executive of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. “The procedures are not made easy for them.”
Last year the Malaysian cabinet said it wanted to prohibit the conversion of children without the consent of both parents, but it was yet to pass legislation to do so, said M. Kulasegaran, the opposition
Democratic Action Party MP for Ipoh West and another of Ms Gandhi’s lawyers.
Ms Gandhi is also focused on being reunited with her youngest daughter.
Her eldest children, aged 12 and 13, have lived with her since she separated from her husband, but it has been nine months since she last saw her youngest, who will soon turn two.
Her husband had refused to return the girl.
“It’s not about religion. It’s about humankind,” Ms Gandhi said.

Muslims’ Custody Of Christian Girl Overturned – Startling Ruling Leaves Older Sister To ‘Choose’ Her Future
Arthur Cristian; 18/9/08;
Human rights lawyers working on behalf of a 10-year-old Christian girl reportedly kidnapped by Muslims who then claimed to have custody because she “converted” to Islam have won a startling ruling for her to be returned to her parents. However, the judge said the girl’s 13-year-old sister could “choose” either to be with her alleged kidnapper, a Muslim who said he “married” her, or her parents, and she chose the kidnapper, according to a report from Compass Direct. Rashid Rehman, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said that is normal behavior for a 13-year-old, considering the circumstances. “She was tutored and brainwashed by the family of her husband … and naturally they made up her mind that her parents will hurt her and treat her inhumanely. In fact that will never happen. Her family is really peaceful, and remained so peaceful the whole time the case was heard in high court,” Rehman said