Malaysian mother's battle sparks reform against 'child snatching' cases

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysian kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi last saw her infant daughter in 2009 before her estranged husband snatched the 11-month-old away after an argument.

"I thought he would return in one or two days with (her). I never thought this was going to happen, I was devastated," the 41-year-old said.

Gandhi is one of several women whose husbands converted to Islam in Muslim-majority Malaysia, before secretly converting their children and then applying for custody of them in an Islamic court.

As a Hindu, Gandhi is unable to challenge his bid in the Islamic court because she is not a Muslim.

Now the Malaysian parliament, spurred by her case, is considering legislative reforms to stop such cases of secret conversion, sometimes dubbed "child snatching".

Campaigners say it is a strategy mostly used by husbands seeking an upper hand in custody battles.

"It is not only my battle... there are cases which are not publicised, there are those who are fighting quietly," Gandhi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Ipoh, a city in northern Malaysia where she lives.

More than 60 per cent of Malaysia's population of 30 million are Malay Muslims, but it also has a large number of Chinese and Indian minorities.

The country's Islamic court, which hears cases of family disputes and inheritance involving Muslims, runs parallel with the civil court.

Gandhi's problems began in 2009 when her then husband converted from Hinduism to Islam as their marriage fell apart.

Without her knowledge, he then converted the baby girl and their two older children - giving him grounds to apply in an Islamic court for custody, which was granted.

While the two older children have remained with Gandhi, her ex-husband took the youngest, and Gandhi has not seen her since.

The proposed reforms seek to outlaw such conversion by one parent, which advocates say will safeguard a mother's equal access to custody rights and quell unease among religious minorities.

There are no statistics on the number of Malaysian mothers affected by conversion custody cases, but Gandhi is not alone.

In another high-profile case, Hindu mother Deepa Subramaniam waged a legal battle against her Muslim convert husband, who had converted and claimed custody of their two children.

Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of Kuala Lumpur-based Women's Aid Organisation, said amending the law would protect the rights of women and the best interests of children.

Cases of child conversions "predominantly affected women and demonstrated extreme violations of a woman's right as equal guardian of her children", she said. "Failing to fully protect the rights of non-converting spouses and their children erodes women's constitutional right to equality."

Goh Siu Lin, the president of the Malaysia's Association of Women Lawyers, said the proposal would legally recognise a mother's equal right in the choice of religion of her child. "This is a very positive and long-awaited legislative intervention by the government of Malaysia," Goh said.

Malaysian lawmakers are scheduled to debate and vote on the proposal early next year.

Gandhi, who has become the face of the landmark legislative reforms, more than seven years later remains locked in a legal tussle with her ex-husband, as she challenges the conversion of her three children in a civil court and tries to convert them back to Hinduism.

And she continues to reminisce about her baby girl: "She was a happy and easy going baby... She is always in our prayers."