Malaysia: Ethical questions arise on schoolgirl conversion

March 9, 2015 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Conversion of schoolgirlMalaysia, March 2, 2015: Only 11 kilometers separated rubber tapper Jilius Yapoo from his daughter at her boarding school in Kinarut, Sabah, but it was a long way on rough roads which made the journey difficult, so he entrusted the school with her safety and well-being.

He never expected that four years later, he would see the 16-year-old wearing a tudung (Muslim head scarf) and hear her say she had converted from Christianity to Islam.

Penampang MP Darell Leiking, speaking on behalf of the father of eight, said that Yapoo, 46, was not against his children leaving the family’s religion, but only after they turned 18 and when he was certain that they could decide for themselves without undue influence.

Leiking, who is acting as the family’s counsel, said Yapoo was “shocked beyond words” to find out about his daughter’s conversion and that it had been hidden from him.

Equally frustrating was the fact that the school and his home in Kampung Kaiduan were not that far apart, but the poor infrastructure in Sabah’s interior villages had widened the distance and made him feel out of touch with his daughter.

“Imagine, it’s just 11 kilometers but he cannot afford the daily commute to school. Any other parent staying in Petaling Jaya (Selangor), for example, would be able to send their children to school and back in comfort despite that distance.”

“But for this rubber tapper, there is no proper road to his home, 11 kilometers is a long way, so he entrusted his daughter to the school and look what has happened,” said Leiking.

Leiking said Yapoo has made it clear that when his daughter turns 18, he would leave it to her to decide which faith she wants to follow, but not until then and while she is under the care of her Christian parents.

“Her father has been very consistent from day one. When she turns 18, she can choose what faith she wants to follow.”

“This is not about him being against Islam, but about the rights of parents over their child,” Leiking added.

According to Leiking, the girl told her parents she was now a Muslim and that she had recited the syahadah, which is the profession of faith in Islam.

“So we take her word for it, but we still need to hear officially from the school. They are duty-bound to reply unless they have been advised not to,” he said.

The lawyer wrote to the school on Wednesday, asking for an explanation of what transpired that resulted in the minor being converted, and gave them seven days to reply.

He also asked the school to identify the person or persons involved in her conversion.

Leiking said Yapoo planned to seek a court declaration that the 16-year old is not a Muslim, after the school furnishes the facts of what had really transpired.

The lawyer said it was believed that more such conversions were taking place covertly among students without their parents’ knowledge, and also among adults in interior parts of the state.

“The government needs to step in and stop overzealous people from converting minors,” Leiking said.

“And if they are adults, they must be made fully aware of the facts when asked to convert,” he said, adding that there have been cases of mass conversions taking place in the interior of Sabah.

Double standard

Leiking also brought up the anti-Christian seminar held at Universiti Teknologi MARA in May of last year, saying he had raised the issue in parliament, and was given a reply that the seminar was purely for academic purposes.

“But my question is, what if Bumiputera Christians held a seminar on Christianity and said it was for academic purposes, would it be accepted?”

“We know we cannot propagate other faiths to Muslims, but there can’t be two sets of rules on this for students if the reasoning is that the anti-Christian seminar was purely academic,” he said.

Kaiduan Village development and security committee chairman Michael Frederick, who visited Yapoo on Saturday, said that they had a new problem to deal with after the 16-year-old teenager went on a camping trip with her school a few days ago.

This occurred after the minor returned to stay at home following her conversion, and agreed to her father’s suggestion that she transfer to another school.

She was then asked to go on a camping trip by the school, which did not seek her parents’ permission.

Yapoo did not want to deny his daughter the camping trip, so he allowed her to go, on condition that she came straight home from the camp.

But according to Frederick, after the camping trip, not only did the girl not return straight home as promised, she called from the hostel to tell her father that she did not want to move to a new school.

“When her father asked why, she said because it was a Christian school, so we do not know what happened at the camp because earlier, she agreed to go to a new school,” said Frederick, adding that the girl eventually returned to her parents’ home on Saturday evening.

“For now we will wait for an official response from the school on the incident and take it from there,” added Frederick.

Legal debate

Constitutional lawyer Kula Segaran said the 16-year-old girl’s conversion to Islam is not valid under the law, as the religion of a minor can only be changed with both parents’ consent.

The law on this matter has been decided in the civil courts, he said, based on the Ipoh High Court ruling in the case of kindergarten teacher Indira Gandhi, where the court held that the unilateral conversion of her three children, aged between six and 17, by her Muslim-convert husband Riduan Abdullah was unconstitutional.

Kula Segaran said the parents of the student in Kinarut, Papar, should be able to seek recourse in the civil court to impugn their daughter’s conversion certificate, if one has been issued.

The teacher allegedly responsible for the conversion has been transferred to another school in Sabah and was not faulted for any wrongdoing after claiming that the student had wanted to embrace Islam voluntarily.

Kula Segaran said the consent of both parents to the changing of a minor’s religion was stated in the Federal Constitution, which although read “parent”, should be taken to mean the plural and not the singular under the constitution’s rules of interpretation. The case of Indira Gandhi and her ex-husband is now pending at the Court of Appeal.

Kula Segaran, who is also the Ipoh Barat MP, said that in the case involving the Sabah schoolgirl, by nature of the fact that she was a non-Muslim and a minor before the alleged conversion took place, the sharia court had no jurisdiction over her.

“Furthermore, no right-thinking Malaysian would buy the story that the girl went to school and converted willingly.”

“The state education department should stop pretending as though this is not an issue, they should haul up and discipline the person who converted her,” he said.

He also expressed concern that this case was the tip of the iceberg, whereby they could be many more students being converted, but which were not highlighted because the parents were too poor and did not have the means to bring the cases out into the open or to take legal action.

“Its totally fine if the parents consent to their minor children being converted to Islam, but if they are unaware of the conversion taking place, then, that is a problem,” he said.

“The parents in rural areas have no choice but to allow their children to stay in school hostels.”

“They send their kids to school to get an education, not to get converted,” he added.

Giving a different view was lawyer Nizam Bashir, who practices in both the sharia and civil courts.

Bashir pointed out that Article 11 of the Federal Constitution provides that every person has the right to profess and practice his own religion.

“As such, keeping in mind that the girl is not an infant, in the sense that she is not a child between 4 and 8, the pre-requisite of consent constitutes an unreasonable restriction and infringes her right under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution,” Bashir added.

He also said that what constitutes the age of a minor is seen differently from a civil perspective and Islamic law.

A 16-year-old might be considered a minor from a civil perspective but from an Islamic law perspective, the girl may have “come of age” or reached puberty, as Islam doesn’t just look at age but also considers other biological factors to determine age of responsibility, he said.

In such instances, the child should be interviewed by the appropriate authorities to determine if she has come of age and also whether she has converted willingly, he said.

Bashir said this would also be consistent with Article 14 of the Convention of the Rights of Child, that a State shall respect a child’s right to freedom of conscience and religion.

He said similar sentiments are expressed in Article 10 of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, that conversions through compulsion are prohibited in Islam.

“So, as Malaysia is a signatory to both documents, I think Malaysia’s stand on this issue, whether as expressed by the Federal government or by a state government, should be identical irrespective of whether it is being expressed on an international front or the domestic front,” Bashir said.

But he added that whether someone is a Muslim or not, should rightly be determined by the sharia court, adding that civil courts cannot enter into “religious thickets” to determine this question.

– ucanews

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