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.
The abduction of Gandhi’s daughter, Prasana Diksa, came days before her first birthday. Her mother had bought her a Minnie Mouse blouse and jeans, and had planned to take her to the temple for ear piercing, a traditional Hindu practice when a child turns 1.
Gandhi repeatedly called her husband and begged him to return Diksa, who was still on breast milk, in the hours and days after she was taken. Her husband, an odd-job worker now called Muhammad Riduan Abdullah, initially told her again to convert to Islam, then stopped replying to any of her requests.
Gandhi found out that he had officially converted to Islam when she went to a police station to report the abduction. There she learned that he had also changed the birth certificates of the couples’ other two children to state they were Muslims. Fearing that Islamic authorities may seize them as well, Gandhi went into hiding.
The Shariah court granted Riduan temporary custody of all three children days after he abducted Diksa, and granted him permanent custody a few months later. No grounds were given by the Islamic court. In Perak and some other states, Shariah allows one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the other.
Gandhi turned to the civil court, which in 2010 awarded her custody of all three children and ruled that the Shariah court had exceeded its jurisdiction.
Last year, a civil court quashed the children’s conversion to Islam in a landmark ruling. Civil courts had in the past said they had no jurisdiction in such cases.
Riduan appealed the civil court’s custody decision but lost. His appeal of the ruling on his children’s conversions has yet to be heard.
In May this year, the court ordered police to arrest Riduan for contempt of court and return Diksa, now 6, to her mother. Yet with police refusing to act, she is no closer to her daughter. The case continues to go through the civil court system, where it may take years to resolve.
Riduan declined to speak to a reporter. His lawyer, Anas Fauzi, said in an email that Riduan refused to comply with the civil court ruling because he was bound by the Shariah order.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has urged parents to resolve their disputes in the Federal Court, the nation’s highest civil court, but has not condemned the abductions. An aide to Najib declined to comment further on the cases.
Many Islamic clerics view the prospect of a Muslim child being brought up in a non-Muslim household as unacceptable.
Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, who heads the Islamic right-wing group Isma, defended the Shariah courts’ actions, saying the Muslim fathers are in a better position to raise the children as Muslims. He said the law should be changed to allow Shariah courts to hear petitions from non-Muslims, and added that “its decision must be final.”
But Muhammad Asri Zainal Abidin, an Islamic scholar and a former state mufti, said children caught in such custody battles should be able to live with non-Muslim mothers as long as they care for them well.
“There is no compulsion in Islam. Nobody can force others to embrace a religion, not even their parents. Leave the matter to the children to decide when they are old enough,” he said.
Diksa, now called Ummu Habibah Muhammad Riduan, lives with her father in a Muslim community in northeastern Kelantan state. His lawyer, Anas, said she has adjusted well and that “both the father and the daughter receive moral and physical support from the local society.”
Riduan does not provide financial support for his other two children, now 16 and 17, who have remained with Gandhi throughout the dispute. Anas said that since his client converted, “the conditions and the circumstances do not even allow both disputed parties to have any relationship.”
Gandhi did, however, finally receive recent pictures of her youngest child this year. In one, a smiling Diksa is clad in a black Islamic headscarf, posing with her father.
Every day, at an altar in her home, Gandhi lights a candle for Diksa and prays that she comes home.
“Whether she is a Muslim or not, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “She is still my daughter. All I want is to hold and embrace her. I have missed many precious moments with her. I will fight until I get my child back.”