Malaysia: First (Living) Woman Allowed To Leave Islam

Malaysia attempts to present itself as a “liberal” Muslim state. Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution states that a citizen can follow any religion of their choosing, contains a clause which shows that Malaysia has no concept of religious freedom but adds: “The law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” Article 3 states that Islam is the official religion of the state, but Article 3 (1) of the constitution states that ‘other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation’.

Additionally, there is a racist element in Malaysia’s constitution. All ethnic Malays are said to be Muslim. At the age of 12, each person in Malaysia is issued with an identity card – called MyKad – upon which the person’s religion and race are listed. And all Malays are automatically said to be Muslims.

The problems are made worse by the racism of Malaysia’s ruling party – UMNO. This party has ruled in a coalition since Malaysia became independent in 1957. After race riots in 1969, the party has actively promoted a racist policy of “ketuanan Melayu” which gives job preferences and privileges to Malays and Muslims above other racial/religious groups.

NyonyaIn the history of modern Malaysia, the only person who was allowed to leave Islam was an 89-year old widow called Nyonya Tahir. She had married a Chinese Buddhist man in 1936 when she was aged 20. She became a Buddhist. Her choice to become a Buddhist was made long before the Malaysian constitution was written. Nyonya had tried repeatedly to have the National Registration Department (NRD) change her status to “Buddhist”.

The NRD never makes any decisions of this nature, as an amendment tot he constitution was brought in by the ruling UMNO party in 1988. There are two systems of justice in Malaysia – the civil courts, and the sharia (Syariah) courts. Article 121 (a) was introduced in 1988 which stated that any issue which fell under the jurisdiction of the Islamic courts could not be dealt with by the civil courts. As for a Muslim all issues of “religious status” are dealt with by the Islamic courts, all appeals to civil courts on issues of apostasy are rejected.

Nyonya Tahir made history when on January 24, 2006 she was allowed to be granted the status of being a Buddhist. This status had been denied her ever since Malaysia became independent in 1957.

Unfortunately, this privilege was not fully appreciated by Nyonya Tahir, as she had died on January 19 of that year. Her body had been refused a burial until Seremban State Syariah Court had decided on the issue.

The custom of body-snatching by Muslim courts has shocked the Western world since December 2005, when the corpse of a Hindu former mountaineering hero was refused burial. The Islamic courts had been told that Maniam Moorthy had become a Muslim convert, a fact his wife Kaliammal had denied. Moorthy had been in a coma when the allegations were made, and could not confirm or deny the claims. Kaliammal tok the case to the HIgh Court. The judge said that because of Article 121 (a) he could not intervene. On December 28, 2005, Lance-Corporal Moorthy’s body was taken away by representatives of the Islamic courts and buried as a Muslim in a Muslim ceremony.

Since that time there have ben several cases where the bodies of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus have been denied burial until representatives of Islamic courts have battled to take possession of the cadaver. Such actions, shocking to outsiders, naturally cause upset and offense to grieving relatives. Muslim women are not allowed to marry out of their faith. As a result, families have been forcibly ripped apart when Islamic courts have decided that a Hindu woman is officially a “Muslim”.

KamariahOne 57-year old Malay woman, Kamariah Ali, had publicly rejected Islam in 1998 and in 2005. An Islamic court sentenced her on March 3, 2008 to two year’s jail for the “crime” of leaving Islam. She has been jailed for being a non-Muslim before. She was a member of the heretical “Sky Kingdom Sect” which welcomed Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus to its compound. She was jailed twice before for not being a “proper” Muslim. In this decade she was jailed for insulting Islam, and in 1992 she was jailed for apostasy.

Another Malay woman who has fought for the right to leave Islam is Lina Joy. She became a Christian in 1981. The NRD refused to recognize either of her change of name from Azlina Jailani to a Christian one (Lina Joy) or to accept her conversion out of Islam. Eventually the NRD allowed her to have her Christian name on her MyKad, but refused to list her as a Christian.

Lina Joy took her case to the Federal Court – the highest court in the nation – in 2006. The result was delayed and delayed. Eventually, in May 2007 the judges at the Federal Court ruled by two to one that she had no right to leave Islam. Outside the court, Muslims cheered the result. Lina is not allowed to marry her Christian boyfriend while she is officially a “Muslim”. She and her lawyer have received death threats from Muslims.

I wrote earlier this year:


A similar case involved an ethnic Chinese woman from Nibong Tebal, Penang state, who was originally called Tan Ean Huang. She had married an Iranian man called Ferdoun Ashanian in 1999. Before she married him, she converted to Islam in July 1998, and her MyKad was changed by the NRD to acknowledge her conversion. She became known as Siti Fatimah. Only a few months after the marriage Ashanian deserted her, and his whereabouts are now unknown. In May 2006, she applied to Penang’s Islamic Affairs Council to declare that she is not a Muslim. Siti Fatimah wanted her MyKad religious status to be officially changed to Buddhist. 

She claimed that her conversion to Islam was only a means to get married, and after the failure of her marriage she had gone back to her Buddhist beliefs. She maintained reverence for Buddhist deities such as Kuan Yin and others. On August 11, 2007, Judge Othman Ibrahim Othman ruled at Penang’s Syariah High Court that a decision would not be made until December 3. He ruled in the meantime that she should undergo Islamic counseling. As in other such cases, a decision has still not been made.”


Today there has been a positive result for Siti. The news is carried by Associated Press, TVNZ, Japan Today, Bernama, International Herald Tribune, BBC and AKI:


In Penang state, in northwest Malaysia on Thursday, a Shariah High Court’ decided that the 39-year old cake-seller could leave Islam. The court ruled that when Siti married her husband, the official Islamic authorities and her husband had both failed to give her proper guidance on Islam.

The judge, Othman Ibrahim, ruled that “The court is disappointed because MAIPP (Penang Islamic Religious Council) did not act quickly to save the faith of a Muslim and provide a procedure to control and supervise a Muslim convert so that she did not abandon Islam. Without reasonable methods, perhaps more will come to court to renounce Islam.”

Othman also criticized the Penang Islamic Religious Council (MAIPP) for failing to attend the court until the proceedings were nearly over, despite MAIPP being issued with a summons and statement of claim.

Judge Othman ordered MAIPP to cancel the certificate that claimed Siti had converted into Islam.

Lawyer Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz of the MAIPP said: “So you can’t blame her for her ignorance of the teachings and wanting to convert out.”

Siti was pleased, and said: ” I want to go to the (Buddhist) temple to pray and give thanks.”

Siti had filed her appeal on July 10, 2006, naming MAIP as a defendant. She asserted that she had only converted on July 25, 1998 only to be able to marry her Iranian husband. He had absconded four months after the marriage. Siti claims she still eats pork.

Her lawyer said it was a landmark decision. Some minority groups have said that this was a victory for minority rights, but until Muslims are allowed to leave Islam, just as any other person can leave their religion to convert into Islam, there has been only a lucky result for Siti.

It is of no consolation to Kamariah Ali who is in jail, to Lina Joy, or to Hindu women such as Revathi Massosai who was placed in an Islamic “rehabilitation center”, wher she claims she was mentally tortured. It is no consolation for the family of Hindu rubber tapper Marimuthu. His wife, by whom he had six children, was said to be a Muslim. He was told that unless he converted to Islam, he would be prosecuted for “khalwat” – being in close proximity to a person to whom one is neither a relative or marriage partner. His wife has been forced to leave her family.

Until these injustices are addressed, and the racist parts of the constitution (Article 160, section 2) that define all Malays as Muslims, and the amendment of 121 (A) is struck off, there is nothing here to celebrate. The news is good for Siti, but it is a fluke, rather than a basic right. I am reminded of the saying “one swallow does not a summer make”.

Siti may not even be out of the woods yet – MAIPP has the right to contest the decision from the state’s Syariah High Court. Ahmad Munawir Abdul Aziz, representing MAIPP, said that his group would be lodging its appeal within 14 days at the Penang Syariah Appeals Court.

Siti had also tried to have the NRD change the religious status on her MyKad identity card from “Muslim” to Buddhist”. Judge Othman Ibrahim had refused, stating that his court did have jurisdiction over this matter.

Malaysia’s largest trading partner is America. Perhaps the American government should be pressing for Malaysia to allow freedom of religion for all people in Malaysia. As a member of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the Malaysian government has moved further towards Islamism.

In 2007, during the nation’s 50th anniversary celebrations of independence (Merdeka), Malaysia’s chief justice Ahmad Fairuz suggested that common law should be abolished and replaced with Sharia law.


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