Unilateral conversions: These families' lives are in limbo

Mei, 35, has been keeping close tabs on kindergarten teacher M. Indira Gandhi’s long drawn fight to regain custody of her youngest child Prasana Diksa from her ex-husband, Mohamad Riduan Abdullah @ K. Patmanathan.

Last month, the Court of Appeal decided to set aside a 2013 High Court order to quash the unilateral conversions of Indira’s three children (Tevi Darsiny, Karan Dinish and Prasana) to Islam by their Muslim convert father. The ruling meant that the legality of the conversions could only be determined by the Syariah Court.

It was akin to slamming the door on Indira. She cannot seek legal redress in the Syariah Court as it has no jurisdiction over her as she is a Hindu. Her only hope now lies in bringing her case to the Federal Court.

It was a devastating blow to Indira and Mei felt her anguish because she is in the same predicament. Four years ago, her ex-husband became a Muslim and unilaterally converted their two children aged five and seven on the sly. They are divorced and he has remarried. But Mei is afraid to take her case to court for fear of losing her sons. For now, the boys are with her but their father takes them to religious classes daily and calls them by their Muslim names.

From time to time, he threatens to take them away from her.

“I am very angry … but also scared. I won’t go to court because I don’t think the (justice) system will be on my side. Just look at Indira and Deepa … none of them have got their children back,” says Mei, a sales manager, who is haunted by the fear of losing her sons.

But it is the anxiety of knowing she will be helpless if her ex-husband decides to take her sons away from her on religious grounds that is hardest to bear.

For now, she finds strength and comfort in her supportive family, and hopes she never lose her sons.

“I don’t know what I will do. At the moment, I am ignoring it. Maybe I will convert too … just to be with my children,” she says. “I really don’t know.”

Time for change

The appellate court’s decision to abdicate the civil court’s responsibility in ruling on Indira’s case has struck a chord not only with those affected like Mei but with many Malaysians. Regardless of their faith, they feel Indira’s pain of being separated from her child, and her frustrations of not being able to get fair recourse.

Some feel it is not enough to just silently stand by.

Indira Gandhi talks to her lawyer after the verdict from the Court of Appeals stated that her children's convertion was a matter for the Syariah court. Photo: Bernama
Indira Gandhi talks to her lawyer after the verdict from the Court of Appeals stated that her children's conversion was a matter for the Syariah court. Photo: Bernama

Last Saturday, some 300 people showed up at the Polo Grounds in Ipoh to walk in solidarity with Indira, and openly express their dissatisfaction and dismay at the lack of resolution in the seven-year case. They want the government to make a clear stand on the conversion of minors by one parent without the knowledge or consent of the non-converting parent.

Many other groups like the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights Malaysia and the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christinanity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism have also stood up for Indira and called upon the government to protect the rights of thr non-Muslim spouses in unilateral conversion cases. They have also reminded the government to prioritise the best interest of the children involved.

Political parties – pro-government and opposition – are speaking up for Indira now.

Gerakan president Datuk Dr Mah Siew Keong said the party would press Putrajaya for a “permanent solution” to the problem. MCA Wanita chief Datuk Heng Seai Kie and MIC president Datuk S. Subramanian both expressed disappointment with the ruling.

They collectively agree on the urgent, if not immediate, need for a resolution to the legal impasse in unilateral conversion cases. Although there are no available statistics on the number of unilateral conversions that have been carried out nationwide, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is significant.

Chong Ah Mee (1998), S. Shamala (2002), R. Subashini (2006), Indira (2009) and S. Deepa (2013) are among those whose cases have been highlighted in the media.

None of these women have been successful in their appeals either to gain custody or have their children’s conversions quashed.

Amidst the confusion about the jurisdictions of the Civil and Syariah courts in this matter, the victims of unilateral conversions stand alone in limbo.

In July 2013, the Ipoh High Court ruled that the unilateral conversions of Indira’s three children to be unconstitutional and anuled the conversions. The court also upheld the 2010 order giving custody to Indira and found her ex-husband Mohammad Ridzuan in contempt.

It also anuled the 2009 Syariah order which gave him custody. The judge then ordered the police to arrest Mohammad Ridzuan unless he returned Prasana Diksa to Indira. The police however did not act as they claimed to be torn between the Civil and Syariah court orders.

Unless the law is amended to safeguard their rights, non-converting spouses like Mei cannot depend on the legal system to protect their rights as parents. All Mei can do now is to silently put up with her ex-husband’s threats to take away her sons as Indira’s case has clearly shown who has the upper hand.

“This isn’t just about Indira. There are many who are suffering in silence and who do not have the money to pursue legal action,” points out Indira’s lawyer M. Kulasegaran who has been working on the case pro-bono.

Kulasegaran says that since taking on Indira’s case, he has received numerous requests from spouses – mostly, but not all women – who have been blindsided when their spouses embraced Islam and subsequently unilaterally converted their children without their knowledge or consent.

“I can’t take any more cases. I would like to but I just can’t,” says Kulasegaran.

Women’s Aid Organisation advocacy officer (law and policy) Lainey Lau says that apart form the high profile cases of Shamala, Subashini and Deepa, the organisation has dealt with other unilateral conversion cases that never made the headlines.

“Whenever there is a court ruling in favour of unilateral conversion, we would immediately get calls that very week from (mostly) women who share that their husbands have threatened to covert to Islam to gain custody of their children. This is a great cause for fear in many women and is an issue that needs to be taken seriously by the authorities,” says Lau.

In 2009, the government pledged to tackle the issue. The Cabinet issued a directive that children of an estranged couple should remain in the religion of the parents at the point of marriage. The directive also instructed that the civil court had the right to dissolve a marriage should one spouse convert to Islam and proposed amendments to three laws – Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Act 1993 and the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984 – to ensure that issues like child support and custody would be determined by the court in which the marriage had been registered in.

However, this directive has not been made legally binding.

Instead, a special ministerial team has been formed after the appellate court’s decision to look into this issue. De facto law minister Nancy Shukri recently expressed hope that Putrajaya would table amendments to the three laws in March to ensure that issues like child custody, alimony and division of marital assets are resolved in the court in which one’s marriage was registered.

“Conversion into Islam should not be a way for the converting spouse to escape their responsibility and obligations under the non-Muslim marriage. There is also the risk of minors being exploited by some to unfairly gain custody of their child and to evade responsibilities under the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976,” asserts Sisters in Islam communications officer Aliah Ali.

Aliah says that religious authorities must exercise more caution when the person who intends to convert is married to a non-Muslim.

“Conversion into Islam must be carried out with more responsibility, especially on minors to ensure justice and fairness to both the converting and non-converting spouse,” says Aliah.

Indira (middle), Tevi Darsiny (left) and Karan Dinish (right), are still pining for Prasana Diksa. — RONNIE CHIN/TheStar
Indira (middle), Tevi Darsiny (left) and Karan Dinish (right), are still pining for Prasana Diksa. Photo: The Star/Ronnie Chin

Missing her sister

She has grown up with her family drama played out in court, after court. Tevi Darsiny is the eldest child of kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi who has been embroiled in a court battle since 2009 to regain custody of her youngest daughter from her ex-husband K. Pathmanathan @ Mohamad Ridzuan Abdullah.

She was 12 when her father converted to Islam and took her sister, Prasana Diksa, away with him.

To the public, Indira’s case is one that has revived the issue of unilateral conversions. But to Tevi, the case is first and foremost about reuniting with her younger sister.

Even after all these years, Tevi is still trying to reconcile with her father’s act of breaking their family apart and separating her baby sister from them.

“My family is torn apart because of what my father has done. It is his choice to convert to whatever religion he wants but he should never have involved us kids in this. Maybe he has the right to, as a father, but he is not the one to decide what (is) to become of us,” says Tevi.

When she was younger, Tevi was closest to her father. “When he left, she was deeply affected,” shared Sugumaran, Indira’s brother-in-law.

“In the beginning, we were all afraid that he would come back for her. A couple of times, he did look for her at school and naturally she would run to see him. We had to literally wait at the school to make sure she was safe,” recalls Sugumaran.

Until today, Tevi doesn’t understand why her father left.

“She was confused at first, but now she is just hurt and disappointed,” shares Indira.

The case has dominated headlines, but Indira has tried to keep Tevi and her son Karan away from the spotlight as much as she can. But the pain of losing a father and a sister is very real for her two children.

“For me, this is very personal. This is about my family,” says Tevi.

According to Sugumaran, after an argument with Indira, Muhammad Ridzuan snatched Prasana from Tevi who was then carrying the baby.

“He wanted them to convert to Islam and when Indira resisted, he grabbed the baby and left on his motorcycle,” says Sugumaran.

It was only when she went to make a police report did Indira realise her husband had already converted and unilaterally converted her children as well.

For seven years, Indira and her children have pined for Prasana whom they have not seen since she was an 11-month old baby. Back in 2010, Indira managed to catch a glimpse of her in court but not since then.

“We only have photos of her as a baby and I look at them all the time. I don’t know how she looks like now, what she likes or how she sounds like.

At night, my older children and I talk about these things … we wonder what toys she would like, what sort of a person she might be … it keeps us going until the day we actually get to see her,” says Indira in a recent interview, her voice cracking with emotion.

It’s the same for Deepa who has had to relocate for fear that her converted ex-spouse would snatch her 11-year-old daughter Sharmila away from her the way he did her son, Mitran, 8.

Despite their pain, both women are determined to speak out to bring attention to their situation.

“It’s not just us,” says Deepa. “There are many women in our situation and this cannot continue to happen. I will fight and fight until I get my son back,” says Deepa.

Indira has no idea what the outcome of her upcoming appeal to the Federal Court will be. But she is determined to fight till the end.

“My children and my family have been my pillars of strength. There was a time in the beginning when I wanted to give up. I even thought about converting to Islam … this was in the beginning … just so I could get my baby back. But my daughter and son told me to fight.

“And now, knowing that other Malaysians who don’t know me are behind me … I feel touched and I feel stronger to face this next hurdle,” she says.

Although she works two jobs - as a kindergarten teacher in the day and a tutor in the evenings - to support her two children, Indira has taken on the responsibility of speaking to the public. She wants to spread public awareness about the need to amend the laws to ensure justice for women in her situation.

She says: “I am thankful for all the support. Maybe if more people know about this and talk about it, the government will do something.”

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