11 Nov 2010

Malaysian woman forced to convert to Islam as a child seeks religious freedom, risks charges of apostasy

The Jakarta Post - November 25, 2009

Malaysian woman tries to reverse Muslim conversion

The Associated Press , Kuala Lumpur

A Malaysian woman is fighting to be recognized as a Hindu after being converted to Islam when she was a child, in the latest interfaith dispute to hit Muslim-majority Malaysia, her lawyer said Wednesday.

The case threatens to further anger non-Muslims who have complained that their religious rights are being sidelined, and could further erode minority support for the government.

Lawyer Gooi Hsiao Leung said Banggarma Subramaniam, 27, and her three siblings were under the care of a government orphanage in northern Penang state when she was converted to Islam by welfare officials in 1989 when she was seven years old.

"The conversion itself from the start (was) illegal. She wants to restore her Hindu faith and practice her religion freely," he told the Associated Press.

She ran away when she was 16 and got married two years later in 2001 in a traditional Hindu ceremony. When she returned to the home to collect her identity card and other documents, she was given the Muslim conversion certificate which listed her name as Siti Hasnah Vanga-rama Abdullah, said Gooi.

She has been unable to register her marriage or name her husband as the father of their two children in their birth certificates as she is listed a Muslim. Banggarma's husband must convert to Islam to legally wed her as marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims is not allowed in the country.

The welfare department claims Banggarma was converted in 1983 by her father and that she must go to the Shariah Court to verify her status.

Gooi, however, said the conversion certificate was dated 1989 and that under Penang Islamic laws, minors below 18 cannot be converted to Islam without the consent of their parents.

Malaysia has a dual court system with civil courts for non-Muslims and Shariah courts for Muslims. In interfaith disputes involving Islam, the Shariah courts typically get the last word, which has upset non-Muslims who fear they cannot get justice in such courts.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism reiterated calls for legislative reforms to "ensure that Islam, and Islamic law, is not forced upon people like Banggarma who do not profess themselves as Muslim."

Banggarma "should have complete freedom to choose her own religion without having to go through any procedure or counseling," it said in a statement.

If she renounces Islam, Banggarma risks being charged with apostasy, which in Malaysia - as in many Islamic nations - is regarded a crime punishable by fines and jail sentences. Offenders are often sent to prison-like rehabilitation centers.

Minorities are increasingly becoming worried that their rights have become subordinate to those of ethnic Malay Muslims, who form nearly 60 percent of Malaysia's 28 million people.

The unhappiness over racial discrimination erupted in an unprecedented street protest exactly two years ago Wednesday by tens of thousands of ethnic Indians. The demonstration emboldened the minorities into voting against the government, which returned to power with its worst performance ever in the March 2008 general elections.

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