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Malaysian Custody Dispute Lost Between Courts

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KUALA LUMPUR — Through most of their 17-year marriage, M. Indira Gandhi says she and her husband observed rituals that she considered integral to their Hindu faith. Each morning they would pray before a shrine and on Fridays they would fast. During festivals they donned brightly colored, traditional outfits to attend their local temple.

Those were traditions Ms. Gandhi assumed they would be passing on to their three young children.

But nearly a year ago Ms. Gandhi was stunned to discover that her husband had converted to Islam. Her surprise turned to anger when she discovered that, without consulting her, he had also converted their children.

“If he wants to convert, O.K. But these are children that were born from both of us,” said Ms. Gandhi, a kindergarten teacher in Ipoh, a town about a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Her husband’s action has left Ms. Gandhi navigating the conflicting jurisdictions of Malaysia’s religious and civil courts in a case that has challenged the authority of Shariah courts in this predominantly Muslim country.

Under Malaysia’s two-tier judicial system, Islamic Shariah courts handle family law cases involving Muslims, while secular courts handle those involving non-Muslims. But the lines have become blurred in cases involving interfaith disputes. Religious minorities have complained that they are at a disadvantage when their case falls to an Islamic court.
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