Women’s group says the bill still doesn’t protect the interests of minors in cases where one of their parents has converted to Islam

KUALA LUMPUR: Clause 88A is crucial for safeguarding the interests of children and its omission from the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2017 has left them vulnerable, said Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) vice-president Meera Samanther today.

In expressing her disappointment with the passing of the bill, Meera said if other amendments could be made there was no reason to exclude the provision banning unilateral conversion of minors to Islam.

“It is so disappointing. The cabinet had agreed on the reform which includes the 88A clause, and now the issue is not dealt with at all.

“The point is, what are the children to do now and what suggestion does parliament have for us? If the government can amend the bill, why can’t they deal with the conversion issue which is the main point of the law reform.”

The major issue was not addressed and now it is back to square one, she said.

Agreeing with Meera is veteran lawyer Saadiah Din, who said the first proposed amendment announced by the cabinet was the best way to end the dispute in custody battles between a convert and his or her non-Muslim spouse.

She said section 88A should not have been dropped in the new bill.

“The first amendment which included the clause (on conversion of minors) was the best for everyone. If one is to argue on Islamic perspectives, then the argument is different, but in civil courts clause 88A has to be included,” said Saadiah, who practises both civil and shariah laws.

“I believe many will be disappointed with this,” she told Berita Daily.

The Dewan Rakyat last night passed the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill 2017.

The decision was announced by Deputy Speaker Ronald Kiandee at about 12.40am, after the third reading of the bill was made by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said and seconded by Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Hamim Samuri.

Earlier the bill was tabled by Azalina for second reading and debated for over three hours, before the winding-up by Azalina which took an hour.

In winding up the debate, Azalina said the amendments aimed to provide room for couples who had married and converted to Islam or where one of them who is a Muslim to file a petition for the dissolution of the marriage in the civil court.

Causing pain and harm

Meanwhile, DAP parliamentarian Kasthuriraani Patto, when contacted, said that the government is shirking its responsibilities.

She said many others would suffer the same fate as Indira Gandhi, who had her children taken away just because her spouse converted to Islam.

“I believe this is a case of the government escaping its responsibilities. The 88A amendment is the most crucial for the well-being of Indira Gandhi’s child and many others who are suffering like her.

“Why then did the cabinet decide and announce a go-ahead in 2009 on the amendments? Was it constitutional back then?,” she said.

Azalina had said Clause 88A was dropped because it was considered unconstitutional by the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Women’s rights group, Sisters in Islam (SIS) in a statement also condemned the government’s decision to leave out Clause 88A, saying that the current law has failed to serve justice or provide substantive legal recourse for the non-converting spouse which subsequently will cause more pain and harm towards them.

SIS, an outspoken non governmental organisation, added that cases of unilateral conversions as experienced by S Deepa and Indira Gandhi indicate extensive emotional suffering.

“SIS would like to reiterate that the current law has failed to serve justice or provide substantive legal recourse for the non-converting spouse. With the long-drawn court processes in having to address jurisdictional issues, more often than not, prolongs the uncertainty and denies justice to be immediately upheld for the families concerned.

“Cases of unilateral conversions as experienced by Deepa and Indira Gandhi and many others indicate extensive emotional suffering and there is a critical need for the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) (Amendment) Bill to prevent these experiences happening again to non-converting spouses.

“Withdrawing the bill shows lack of commitment by the government to uphold and protect the rights of non-converting spouses especially in cases where there is unilateral conversion to Islam,” SIS affirmed.

Debate over omission of Clause 88A

Earlier, during the debate yesterday, DAP’s Ipoh Barat MP M Kula Segaran urged the government to reinsert Clause 88A into the bill.

Clause 88A states that the religion of a child which is a product of the marriage “shall remain as the religion of the parties to the marriage prior to the conversion”.

The clause also provides that the child can, after turning 18 and with the consent of both parents, convert to Islam.

While delivering his argument, Kula accused the government of failing to “keep its promise made in 2009”.

Azalina, however, explained that Clause 88A would not solve the issue, and more in-depth discussions were needed in order to find a more comprehensive solution.

“I don’t believe Section 88A would solve the conversion issue. This needs further and deeper discussions.

“But this does not mean it is the end of the story,” Azalina said.

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