PETALING JAYA, 26 Nov 2009: The rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims must be protected in amending the Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce) Act 1976 (LRA), several groups said.
Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan said the Bar supported any move to amend the LRA to allow a spouse converting to Islam to file for divorce from a civil marriage.
“Both parties [in a marriage] must have the right to petition for divorce,” he said at a press conference today at the Bar Council in reference to the existing lacuna in the law that only enables the non-converted spouse to file for divorce.
The press conference was called following a government briefing on 23 Nov 2009 that stated that the law would be amended to allow a spouse who converts to Islam to petition for divorce in the civil courts.
Ragunath (right) and Human Rights Committee Chairperson
Andrew Khoo at the press conference
Ragunath, however, said the Bar Council would object to any amendments that allowed the automatic dissolution of a civil marriage three months after one spouse converts to Islam.
“Either party should have the right to apply to court for a dissolution, but there should be no automatic dissolution. This would lead to more problems,” he said.
“It is correct that the converting spouse shouldn’t be left in a limbo,” said Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah, speaking on behalf of Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women, in a phone interview.
“But the rights of the non-converting spouse and the children must also be looked at. The law and the attorney-general are there to look after the interest of all people irrespective of race, religion and gender.”
Conversion of children
Ragunath also noted that the government briefing only talked about amending the law to prevent a parent or guardian from unilaterally registering a child’s conversion.
“The law should clearly say that a parent or guardian will be prevented from converting a child unilaterally without the other parent’s consent,” he said.
Chew (wanita.mca.org.my) Wanita MCA chairperson Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun said yesterday if a child’s religion was disputed following one spouse’s conversion to Islam, the child’s religion at the time of birth or the common religion at the time of the parent’s marriage should be the status quo.
“This must remain until the child reaches the age of majority which is 18 years whereupon the child can then decide his or her own religion,” she said in a statement.
In responding to questions on a parent’s right to bring up their children according to their beliefs, Ragunath said today there was nothing stopping either parent from educating their children on the virtues of any religion.
However, he stressed that no conversion should take place without the consent of both parents until the child was 18.
Fulfil obligations first
The proposed amendments also confirm the civil courts’ authority to decide on alimony, custody and matrimonial assets in a civil marriage where one spouse converts to Islam.
Chew said the amendments must also make clear that the division of matrimonial assets acquired before the conversion would be subject to civil and not syariah laws.
Josiah said that if it was a civil marriage, then civil laws should apply upon the marriage’s dissolution. She added that from experience, problems have generally arisen when the husband converts to Islam.
“The law must make sure that the husband does not abandon his responsibilities to his wife and children once he becomes a Muslim,” said Josiah.
Josiah (Courtesy of Ivy Josiah) “The non-Muslim spouse should be entitled upon a divorce to all the civil remedies available such as monthly maintenance until she remarries, and custody of her children, subject to the court’s assessment,” she added.
“Just as the civil courts have no jurisdiction in a marriage under syariah law, the same principle should apply here,” said Ragunath.
Ragunath added that with the new amendments, converting spouses would have to ensure that all their civil obligations were fulfilled before their conversion could be registered.
However, he said further clarification on the LRA amendments was needed to ensure that all parties were adequately protected and to prevent a repeat of previous reported cases of injustice.
Josiah said the amendments had not been officially presented to the women’s groups as yet.
“There needs to be a more consultative process,” she said. “The amendments need to be discussed. This is a matter of justice and ensuring that all are equal before the law.”
Ragunath also called on the government to brief all relevant stakeholders before any amendments are passed.
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