A Muslim woman forcibly separated from her Hindu husband by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities after 21 years of happy marriage wept inconsolably yesterday after a judge endorsed her decision to hand custody of six of her seven children to her former spouse.
In an unprecedented move for Malaysia – where Islamic religious laws are strictly enforced – the children, aged four to 14, will be raised as Hindus despite being born to a Muslim mother. Last month Selangor state’s Islamic authorities took Raimah Bibi Noordin, 39, and her children away for “rehabilitation” and religious counselling after belatedly declaring that her marriage was illegal.
The couple cannot live together because the husband did not convert to Islam as required by law for their marriage to be legal. In a country where 60% of the population is Muslim, the law also stipulates that the children must be brought up to observe Islam. Anyone born into a Muslim family cannot legally convert.
But Mrs Raimah Bibi’s husband, Marimuthu Periasamy, 43, applied for custody of the ethnic Indian couple’s children after they and his wife were removed to a Malay Muslim village. He said he feared his children would be brainwashed.
In yesterday’s emotional high court hearing west of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, Mrs Raimah Bibi, who wore traditional floor-length Malay garb with a Muslim headscarf, agreed to give up her children voluntarily to end the standoff. “I agree to hand over the custody of my children to my husband to be raised as Hindus,” she said, before bursting into tears.
The couple were married according to Hindu traditions and brought up their children in the Hindu faith.
Mr Marimuthu claimed his wife had been adopted by an ethnic Indian Muslim family but that she was a practising Hindu and her old identity card categorised her as an Indian Hindu. But when she applied for a new identity card this year, the government listed her as a Muslim, he said.
However, an affidavit read to the court earlier Mrs Raimah Bibi contradicted her husband’s testimony. “I have had discussions with my husband … with regard to the predicament facing us,” it said. “And I state that I was born a Muslim and wish to continue professing the Islamic faith.”
A Malaysian government legal adviser, Zauyah Be Loth Khan, said that Selangor’s Islamic affairs department had raised no objections to the children being raised as Hindus, adding that Mrs Raimah Bibi would have the right to visit at any time .
Despite the eventual outcome, the case highlights growing disquiet about the legal rights of non-Muslims in Malaysia, even though religious freedom is enshrined under the constitution.
Lim Kit Siang, an opposition leader, said. “For this to happen to a couple that has lived together for 21 years as a result of a religious conflict is not good for our international image.”
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