Many objected strongly when the government tabled the Administration of the Religion of Islam (Federal Territories) Bill 2013 late last month.
The Bill allowed for the unilateral conversion to Islam of a child by one parent, presumably after that parent converts himself or herself to Islam.
We are glad that these strong objections have caused the Bill to be withdrawn, for now. Many have emphasised too that withdrawing the bill does not address the problem as existing state religious laws and the Bahasa Malaysia version of the federal constitution must be amended to ensure that the consent of both parents is necessary for a child’s conversion.
But unilateral conversion of the child is not the only issue to worry about when one spouse converts to Islam.
In Women's Aid Organisation's (AO) direct experience with women whose husbands convert opportunistically, other rights of the non-converted women have been eroded.
Right to inherit from a family member who converts to Islam
If one spouse converts to Islam, the non-converted spouse and other non-Muslim next-of-kin are not entitled to inherit from the converted spouse.
The Distribution Act 1958 does not apply to the estate of any person professing Islam, and non-Muslims are generally not allowed to inherit under faraid principles of asset distribution.
Non-Muslim family members can only receive at most one-third of the converted person’s estate, if the converted person chooses to bequeath anything at all.
The Distribution Act 1958 should be amended to safeguard the right of the deceased’s non-Muslim next-of-kin to inherit.
Right to have all issues relating to a civil law marriage settled according to civil laws and adjudicated only in civil courts
Shamala Sathiyaseelan is a Hindu mother whose husband converted to Islam and converted their two infant children without her knowledge or consent.
She went to the High Court to seek redress, but the Court ruled that since the children were now Muslims, the Syariah Court was the only qualified forum to determine their religious status.
As Shamala was not Muslim, she could not appear in the Syariah Court either, and she was left with no avenue to seek justice.
The Law Reform (Marriage And Divorce) Act 1976 should be amended to ensure that all issues relating to a civil law marriage are settled according to civil laws and adjudicated only in civil courts.
A marriage contract between two non-Muslims is made under civil law. It is therefore unjust for a non-Muslim spouse to unexpectedly find herself or himself subject to laws other than those she or he had agreed to at the time of marriage.
Right to be informed of a spouse’s conversion to Islam
Everyone has a right to embrace a religion of their choice, but there is no legal requirement for a spouse who converts to Islam to inform his or her family members of the conversion.
This is key as the conversion has legal consequences on the marriage and the rights of the non-converted family members.
Before registering a conversion, religious authorities should ensure that the spouse and other family members have been notified through a written acknowledgment.
Irresponsible spouses have been allowed to misuse religion to shirk their moral and legal obligations.
As a community of shared values we must not allow the unconverted spouse and other family members to face the injustices caused by this misuse.
WOMEN’S AID ORGANISATION’s (WAO) mission is to promote and create respect, protection and fulfilment of equal rights for women. Arguments in the letter were adopted from the memorandum 'Safeguard Rights of Wives and Children upon Conversion of Husbands to Islam,' published by the Joint Action Group For Gender Equality (JAG) on Feb 5, 2007.