Government urged to address issue of unilateral conversion

File photo of S. Deepa speaking to members of the media at the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa
File photo of S. Deepa speaking to members of the media at the Federal Court in Putrajaya. — Picture by Yusoff Mat Isa

PETALING JAYA — The government’s move to give civil courts full jurisdiction in divorce and custody cases involving spouses who convert to Islam has led to discussions on the issue of unilateral conversion.

Lawyer Fahri Azzat, welcoming the announcement on Thursday by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, said the proposed amendments had taken a long time coming as the idea was first discussed in 2009.

“Firstly, the general idea that the converting spouse should be held accountable under civil law is an excellent notion,” he said.

Fahri said this could resolve the issue of conflicting orders such as was the case with his client S. Deepa who obtained a civil order in the custody battle over her two children with her former husband, Izwan Abdullah, obtaining a Shariah court order.

However, he was wary of the issue of unilateral conversion in which the converting spouse had the right to convert his/her child.

Fahri believed children should have the right to decide even before they become majors.

Najib had said the government will table a bill amending the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 when Parliament resumes in October.

Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham) executive committee member Ivy Josiah, who welcomed the announcement, wants the government to address the issue of unilateral conversion.

“Several years ago a few proposed amendments to the Federal Constitution, the Islamic Family Law, and the Law Reform Marriage and Divorce Act 1976 were put on the table, but did not see light of day. The heart of the matter is to look at what happens after unilateral conversion,” she said.

Josiah said unilateral conversions should be stopped with the proposed amendments rendering previous cases involving this null and void.

“One cannot stop the spouse from converting (as a matter of freedom of religion) but unilateral conversion of children should be stopped. Let them be raised in both faiths with children deciding once they have reached 18 years of age,” she said.

“Hopefully with these amendments, there will be more clarity for the authorities, and civil (court) orders will be honoured,’’ she said.

Lawyer M. Kula Segaran said the draft laws should be widely circulated among parliamentarians, NGOs and the Malaysian Bar Council.

“In this manner, a more detailed study and feedback can be obtained for thorough and fair amendments. This will also ensure that the issue, which has caused much hardship to Indira and others, could be addressed once and for all,” he said in a statement.

He added that a non-partisan Parliamentary committee could be established to address the issue as well.

“The draft laws should be widely circulated among parliamentarians, NGOs and the Malaysian Bar Council,’’ he added.

Kula, the Ipoh Barat MP, was eager to know of the proposed amendments to understand its implications on spouses caught in such a predicament.

Deepa’s case was similar to that of M. Indira Gandhi, a kindergarten teacher, whose husband K. Pathmanathan converted to Islam in March 2009, and subsequently converted their three children.

Deepa married Viran Nagapan in March 2003 but he converted to Islam in 2011, assuming the name Izwan Abdullah.

Izwan subsequently converted their two children without her knowledge.

On February 10, Deepa was awarded custody of their 11-year-old daughter Sharmila with Izwan awarded custody of son Nabil, eight.