POH, Malaysia — Nov 10, 2014, 1:54 AM ET
It was the last round of a recurring argument: M. Indira Gandhi’s husband wanted her to convert to Islam. A committed Hindu, she refused.
He threatened divorce. Both started shouting. Neighbors came looking. Suddenly, he snatched their 11-month-old daughter from the arms of an older child, tucked her under one arm and sped off on his motorbike.
That was more than five years ago. Gandhi hasn’t seen her child since, even though a Malaysian civil court awarded her custody.
Her husband — who converted to Islam shortly before taking his daughter away — won custody in an Islamic court. Because Gandhi is not a Muslim, she was not even called to appear. Police have been unwilling to enforce the civil court’s decision.
“I am pining to see my daughter. No mother should ever have to endure this pain,” said Gandhi, a kindergarten teacher, in her small rented home in Ipoh city in Perak state, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. “Give us a chance. We are all Malaysians. We should have equal rights.”
Gandhi’s case and others highlight perils of Malaysia’s divided legal system, where majority Muslims use Shariah courts for religious and family issues such as conversion, divorce and death. The other 40 percent of the country — mainly Christians, Buddhists and Hindus — use a secular legal system inherited from the Southeast Asian country’s British colonial rulers.
Critics accuse the ethnic Malay Muslim-dominated government of doing too little to resolve problems when those legal systems collide. The government has become increasingly reliant on support from Islamist and right-wing pressure groups as other constituencies flock to the opposition.
M. Kulasegaran, an opposition lawmaker who is also Gandhi’s lawyer, said there are many similar cases, including several he plans to file once Gandhi’s case is resolved. Some earlier cases have turned out even worse for non-Muslims than Gandhi’s case has so far: In 2007, the top civil court ruled that a Muslim spouse had the right to convert his children without the mother’s consent.
Some lawyers and legal experts say spouses in especially bitter custody battles sometimes convert to Islam to gain an upper hand. A Muslim with a non-Muslim spouse who seeks custody from the Shariah court is almost certain to win because the spouse has no standing.
The government has long pledged to tackle legal ambiguities related to religious conversions. But a Cabinet decision in 2009 to allow minors to be converted only with both parents’ consent has yet to be made legally binding.
In southern Negeri Sembilan state, Deepa Subramaniam’s Hindu husband quietly embraced Islam in 2012 and formally converted both their children without her consent. He was then granted custody of the children by a Shariah court. Deepa turned to the civil court, which annulled her marriage on grounds of domestic violence and granted her custody of the children. Two days later, her ex-husband abducted their 5-year-old son.
National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar has refused to act on court orders to return either Deepa’s son or Gandhi’s daughter to their mothers. He has been cited for contempt but is waiting for a higher civil court to weigh in.
He was quoted as saying by local media that police were “sandwiched” between legal systems and proposed that children caught in custody tussles be placed in welfare homes. Khalid did not return text messages from The Associated Press seeking comment.