Ipoh, Malaysia – M Indira Gandhi hasn’t held her daughter in her arms since her ex-husband snatched the then 11-month-old baby from the family home seven years ago.
“I only have a vision of her when she was small,” Indira, 41, said of the little girl the couple named Prasana Diksa, rummaging through her handbag for a tissue to wipe away her tears. “Not seeing her is really heartbreaking.”
Divorce is often fraught, but the breakdown of the kindergarten teacher’s marriage was further complicated by her husband’s decision to become a Muslim, converting their three children, including Prasana, without telling his wife.
He went to the Islamic court – Malaysia has a dual legal system – not only to seek a divorce, but also to secure custody of the children – even though Indira, as a Hindu, had no right to appear there.
Indira has challenged the unilateral conversion of her children through the civil courts. A series of decisions has gone in her favour, with judges granting her full custody of the children in 2010 and an annulment of their conversion in 2013.
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But her former husband, Muhammad Riduan, hasn’t complied with the rulings despite the High Court instructing the police at least three times to find him. And in December last year, the Court of Appeal overturned the lower court’s decision, saying civil courts had no jurisdiction over Islamic conversions.
He is “exploiting the judicial system to win advantage”, M Kula Segaran, Indira’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera at his office in Ipoh, two hours north of Kuala Lumpur.
“She cannot go to the sharia court because she’s not a Muslim, and she cannot challenge it in the civil court because it’s a ‘Muslim’ affair. She’s helpless and voiceless, and they want her to suffer in silence.”
Indira’s case is the most prominent of a number of disputes involving the conversion of children to Islam in a country, which is 61 percent Muslim, but also has sizeable minorities of other religions including Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. The legal battles are testing the limits of jurisdiction in Malaysia’s dual legal system, as well as the sort of justice available to the country’s Muslims and non-Muslims.
“It’s definitely a jurisdictional issue,” said Shareena Sheriff, programme manager at Sisters in Islam, an advocacy group for Muslim women. “The overlaps are creating a very high level of uncertainty about where the right of redress lies, and that’s not a healthy development. We don’t have consistency in court decisions.”
There is also uncertainty about the government’s position. Seven years ago, the cabinet said there should be no unilateral conversion of children and, in the event that one parent decided to become Muslim, the children should continue to be brought up in the religion of their parents at the time of their marriage.
In January this year, after Indira lost her case in the Court of Appeal, S Subramaniam, one of five cabinet ministers on a special committee on the issue, said the government was looking at amendments to the law to prevent the unilateral conversion of children.
Last week, however, Jamil Khir Baharom, a minister who heads the same commission and is responsible for Islamic affairs, told parliament in a written reply that unilateral conversion would not be banned because it would contravene the constitution. His office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
“The relationship between the sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system,” the US State Department noted in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2014.
“The actions of the Islamic authorities, however, increasingly affected non-Muslims. Child custody cases between converted Muslims and their non-Muslim spouses often favour the former.”
Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but Islam is the official religion and Muslims are governed by additional laws implemented and enforced by the Islamic authorities in each of the country’s 13 states.
All ethnic Malays are born Muslims, and anyone who wants to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam. Muslims who want to adopt a different religion must also secure approval from the Islamic court, even though renouncing Islam is considered a criminal offence in some states.
The country’s Muslims are easily identified because their identity cards carry the word “Islam”, while the religions of other citizens are not defined.
For the last 24 years, Mahendran Ghanasan has been known officially as Mohd Sharif bin Abdullah, although he was born a Hindu, has no conversion certificate, and never recited the declaration of faith.
Mahendran said his mother, who is illiterate, converted him to Islam when he was 12 after marrying a Muslim man.
As a child, being Muslim didn’t make that much difference to Mahendran’s life, but as he has got older he has found it increasingly problematic. Although he lives as a Hindu, “Islam” is stamped on his identity card, which means he is subject to Islamic law, and any woman he marries who is not Muslim will need to convert (his partner is Hindu and isn’t keen on converting).
After a series of failed attempts to remove the word from his identity card, and replace the name Mohd Sharif with his birth name, four years ago he took his case to the courts.
“From when I was born up until now I have followed the Hindu way,” Mahendran explained. “I have never got married because of this [the childhood conversion], because then I would need to change my spouse’s name as well. I cannot live a normal lifestyle. I was born a Hindu and I want to die a Hindu.”
Mahendran’s lawyers argued this month in the Federal Court that Mahendran’s conversion was, in fact, an “administrative error” that needed to be rectified.
The judges ruled he should apply to a court for a declaration that he is not Muslim, but did not specify whether he should go to the Islamic or civil court. He is considering making an affirmation of his Hindu beliefs, he said.
A recent court ruling allowing Roneey Rebit, 41, from the indigenous Bidayuh community to renounce Islam has raised hopes for people such as Mahendran who were converted as children. (Roneey was converted at the age of 10 by his parents).
However, because religious issues are the domain of Malaysia’s individual states, the decision does not necessarily create a precedent.
Malaysia’s highest court this month granted Indira permission to appeal against her husband’s conversion of their children, except for her eldest daughter Tevi Darsini; the legal battle has dragged on for so long that Tevi, now 19 and entering university, is considered an adult.
No date has been set for the hearing and despite the pressure on the police to bring Prasana home, mother and daughter have yet to be reunited.
“It takes a day to convert, but it’s taking us so many years to renounce it,” Indira said. “It is not only our lives that are destroyed, but financially it’s bad. It’s hard to be a single mother.”
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