This Thing about Unilateral Conversions in Malaysia

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by Ruby Gege

I am personally very disappointed today. Over an issue that has been dragged on for years. It should have been solved, could have been solved years before but I’m not sure what was stopping the proper parties from reaching a solution. The solution is clear – it is there, it can provide for a finality in the dispute.

However, due to the fears of offending certain factions of the Malaysian society, the proper parties have somehow intelligently avoided from showing their stances. They need to give a solution. They don’t really want to – I know. It is a difficult thing, indeed. Who wants to be stuck in the middle of that dilemma that involves two faiths of two different persons – the mother and the father?

Unilateral conversions of children have been a major issue in Malaysia and most of the time, the stories had a tragic backdrop to them. Father and mother were a non-Muslim married couple with children. Years later, the marriage turned sour. Father converted to Islam and applied for divorce from the Syariah Court. At the same time, he also converted their children without the consent of the mother, changing their religions to Islam. I don’t think he bothered to ask the children what they think. What more the mother. Then, since the children were supposedly of the same religion with the father, the father was granted custody order. Thus, to him, the children belonged to him.

Based on a number of famous cases in Malaysia, one can safely assume that the mother is always the victim to this one-sided proceedings. The father converted to Islam without telling her, applied for divorce from Syariah Court (which decisions bind only Muslims) without consulting her and converted her children without her knowledge. She was half the unit that gave birth to the children. She was half the unit that raised them. Yet, when it comes to cases such as this, her importance was discarded. Her role as the mother – notwithstanding the religion she subscribed to – was diminished. By whom – the husband, the judiciary or the whole system that seems to be treating her unfairly?

Yes, ‘fairness’ is the main issue here. Is it fair to the mother? I prefer to use the word ‘mother’ here in light of the frequency of the cases which involves the mother not having knowledge of their husbands’ act in converting the children and having them deprived from her. If one is to read all the stories in the newspaper and also the case reports, one could very well conclude that it is not. It is not fair. Nevertheless, in situations like this, most people would react with… “What can we do? What to do? The father has the right to act as such anyway. The mother has the order of the civil court, the father the Syariah court. Both have orders. Both have the rights. So what can we do? How can we favour the mother over the father? We don’t have a right to tear away the children from the father as well.”

For the public, they can say such thing, considering they are the public. As for the proper parties who are entrusted by the public to ensure fairness, I do hope that they would display more determination in this matter. Referring to a number of news for the past few days, many significant leaders have suggested solutions which, in my humble opinion, stray from the clear-cut solutions we have in mind. Instead of offering solutions to solve problems, the suggestions lead to more waiting and confusion.

The suggestion that has triggered this post and the one I personally find most disappointing is that the interfaith custody battle should be determined by the Federal Court. Now, I disagree with such view purely from the technical angle. It is already very costly to hire a lawyer and wait for the case to go to court. After having the relief of bringing the case to the attention of the High Court (which is established by the Federal Constitution which happens to be THE SUPREME LAW OF THE LAND) and obtaining an order, the mother or aggrieved party was then told something similar to this effect – “yeah, sorry, I know you spent so many time and energy to gain your son’s custody. But guess what? The High Court order is not good enough. Now, you have to re-hire your lawyers, spend more money, time and energy and witness the continuation of this case.” Problem is, as a normal insignificant citizen, I don’t see any end to the continuation. I can’t. And I am forever a skeptic as to the Federal Court’s ability to solve the matter further.  

We need a solution. That is clear enough. We also need a determination and finality in that solution. Any so-called solution that proves to drag the matter further, causing more suffering to the parties. We are in dire need of fairness and justice in that solution. From what I observe, all eyes are on the Federal Court now. I did not really take the suggestion seriously when it was mentioned by the Prime Minister. Then, a few minutes ago, the Attorney-General suggested the same thing. And I was a bit surprised. I asked myself – is that it? Is that the solution we have been seeking for? Really?

But then… what about the mothers who have been separated from their children?

What about their children’s happiness? What about fairness?

It seems like my disappointment remains… for now.

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[Book Review] – A Fort of Nine Towers (2013) By Qais Akbar Omar

By The Gorgeous Palah Chingu

“I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart. Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.”- Qais Akbar Omar

My Rating: 5/5 (Thats because I have not been so moved by a book in a long while).
My Rating: 5/5 (Thats because I have not been so moved by a book in a long while).

If you ask me is it that GOOD to give 5 stars for this book, i would say 5 is not good enough. I cried, I laughed, I cheered and I felt all sort of emotions that the author told me via his story. This book consisted of 3 parts of author and his family story in it. The first part, you felt warmhearted imagining at the back of your head how he told his childhood story. The way he presented his point of view about his culture is just an honest expression of how he felt due to the way he was raised. He was born in the Pashtun Family and he lived together in a big house with his uncles, aunties and his grandfather is in their culture. He talked about it and enlightened those who find it such a strange culture. He described his childhood to be bright and colorful as he was surrounded by playful cousins and loving relatives. He pointed out that though his family are from Pashtun ethnic but he never spoke Pashto in the house. All of his family members are comfortable using Dari (another language that are widely used in Afghanistan aside Pashto). It is not a big deal for him because he learned Pashto and knew how to use it but he stated that he preferred Dari More. The Kite competition during his past childhood is one of the fiercest battle he ever encountered when he was a kid. He bragged about how his cousin Wakeel can easily defeated other opponent and has been named as ‘The Cruel Kite Cutter’ in their neighborhood. He cherished the moment of one of his family’s servants, Bahar helped him to win the competition by cutting Wakeel’s kite. For the author, The childhood in the big house with all of his cousins is one of the best memories he had.

The second part, you started feeling sad and wanted to help them to get through that awful war ( from Russian, Mujahideen, Taliban and American army). When the war (The Mujahideen Army) is approaching Afghanistan, The Author’s family felt that they are the savior. They had came to chase the Russian and Communism. They felt optimistic about this Army and wished that they will build back their destroyed nation. They are indeed wrong. Not long after Mujahideen’s arrival, The power struggle between factions occurred. Many died because of that. The author’s family felt they are no longer safe staying at their big house. The battle between factions of Mujahideen had turned most of them from being a ‘God’s Man’ to ‘Low-class criminal’. They robbed other’s properties and killed those who defied them. Fearing that their life will not be saved, the author’s family decided to take a refuge in his father’s friend house. They stayed there until American Army came to hunt every single Taliban army that resides in the country. The whole feeling when i read the second part is helplessness. I cant bloody do anything, I just keep moving on to the next pages, hoping the author’s family survived the calamity fell upon them. There was one scene that i deeply remembered because i truly feared that the author and his grandfather will not survived. First scene is when his grandfather stubbornly wanted to take a look at his house that he left a long time ago since Mujahideen Army came. He wanted to bring Author’s uncle originally but his uncle pleaded to wait until a few days for ceasefire between factions to happen. However, His grandfather could not wait any longer and ordered the author to go with him. When his father did not object his grandfather’s decision, he knew he had to accompany him no matter what. When they are on their way, They has been captured by Hazara’s faction of Mujahideen. It was truly a terrifying moment. They had been locked in a room where the walls are full of writing of those who ever lived in it. His grandfather knew that they are going to be killed. He told the author to be strong and in case if he’s got a chance to live, try his hardest to escape. He also told the author that those men might ‘used’ him but he insisted him to endure as surviving is more important. The author cried and asked his grandfather to stop talking nonsense. When the leader of the faction asked what they are both doing in the area, His grandfather told that they are visiting his house in the area. It turned out before the war, the leader is one of the students of the author’s father. He decided to let them go and send them both back. The author picturized the whole scene as his first death escape experience.

The third part is where the age of ignorance came and how the Taliban rules did alter the whole nation. He told what he deeply felt about them in this book. He stated that they brough strange peace into the country. How peace can be such strange thing? He revealed decrees of Taliban that insisted on Hudud Punishment and Fundamentalism of Islamic Law. No Music, No Entertainment, No Pictures, No Free Relationship between Boys and Girls, No Open Courtship and up to the extend of NO to everything. How did they governed Afghanistan? They said Yes to everything which considered good in Holy Quran. When he said strange peace, he does not mean it a good way. He felt the Afghan community and culture suddenly died and they can no longer do what they usually did. He said girls in Taliban’s time faced it much worse because they cant attend school , they have to wore Burqa all the time , they cannot work and they have to be accompanied by their male relatives if they wanted to go to other places. He portrayed vividly the moment of how Taliban used the stadium to carry out the punishment of those they claimed to be a sinner. To witness the scene of girls being stoned to death, the thieves whose hand is being cut and the murderers being shot at the head right away is one of the horrifying moments author ever had. He also reflected back the time he went to jail just for not cutting his hair according to Taliban Standard. In the jail, he was beaten by the religious officers and only to be released when he could answers all of their questions about Islam and Taliban.

According to this book, The author’s cousin named Wakeel and his grandfather played a big role in his life. He cherished both of them in temple of his heart. The wording that he put in this book to portray them both is simple yet poetic. You can sense his sincerity and tenderness in the book. The author even managed to share some of the stories of good people he met despite of war in his journey back and forth with his family.Whether it is from Hazara, Turkmenistan or Pashtun, They are indeed kind people who helped him when he needed it.

Can you see how huge this book is?
Can you see how huge this book is? The book size that i preferred is on my left (The Kite Runner Book) and in the middle one (which i tolerated because it is not that heavy).

To be honest, I hated books that had a huge size (compared to the normal size) which is for me difficult to hold it during reading. This book turned me off right away when i first saw it sitting among bookshelves in a local bookstore. I wanted to ignore the book and move on to another section but my instinct kept asking me to flip a few pages of this particular book. I turned a few pages of this book and i sighed. There is no foreword or rave review by other famous authors. I am skeptical at first but i bought it. I bought it in the sense that i loved non fiction books and above all, it is middle-eastern literature especially from Afghanistan and Iran. After reading a few chapters, I was completely blown away. I wondered how Afghani authors (Khaled Hosseini and others) can easily grasp my attention and i am completely hooked on the way he told his tale. If you like Khaled Hosseini, You should buy this book. What differentiate Qais Akbar Omar from Khaled Hosseini is he did tell the TRUE story and what really happpened to him while he was growing up in Afghanistan in a time of War. I can assure you guys that this book is indeed one of the best books i’ve ever read in 2014.

Wadjda (2013) : Foreign Film Review

By The Gorgeous Palah Chingu

“when the rules dont fit, find the courage to follow your own’

My Rating: 4.5/5
My Rating: 4.5/5

I watched this film like 3 days ago. I am still impacted by this movie. I know I am not supposed to criticize culture that I did not understand but I just cannot brain this one particular culture. The sort of culture that women build because their own men said so or otherwise. The sort of culture that shows a totality in conforming what their husband or father demanded. Trust me, I am a bit similar with those poor women and I am still trying to free myself ever since. I was raised in a household that upholds the tradition of man is superior to woman. It still is and I don’t know when we will evolve from this. I am still fighting the equality that I deserved from my parents yet they shoved it down my throat by saying ‘You are a girl’. The phrase of ‘You are a girl’ really get on my nerves, it just show the value of yourself in the family. Yes, I was given a chance to education because I was born in Malay Middle Class Family. As far as I am concern, middle class family values education above other matters. However, despite being educated, I still am expected to behave like a proper Malay girl. I am expected to do household chores and in their mind, I will somehow get married and settle down like a normal and ordinary girl would do. If my life was planned to be so dull like this, I don’t have to go to school at all. I should learn basic things only and prepare my entire life ahead to be a good housewife. I didn’t say being a housewife is not good; it is just not for me. The education that I received until now shaped the way I thought of this world even in small matters. For me, Marriage is a total submission to one man until you die (if your husband dies or you both are divorced, it will be another story).

It is so great to be born in Malaysia where Islam is practiced moderately. I feel lucky because I have access to many things though there are still culture restrictions on woman of we should do this and that. I read so many books featuring the story of my sisters in some middle-eastern countries that does not have access to education. Even if they have, they can’t because they are not supposed to. Why they are not supposed to? That’s because their dad/brother/husband said so. They have to live in total seclusion and barricaded themselves within 4 walls. They bear the responsibility of being a good mother and obedient housewife. They are taught that there is no other life aside from serving the family and dedicated their whole like being a proper woman. If you are ended up in this kind of life, you will teach your own daughter the same life values you had. You yourself can’t even teach your daughter to try other option because in your mind there will be no other option. The chain of this restrictive and backward way of life will deny your own daughter of what choice she will have in her life. That is why it is so refreshing seeing many activists in Saudi Arabia this year protesting loudly and bravely in against the order of woman cannot drive. We live in 21st century and we still have this absurd law in some country. Saudi Arabia is the only country that didn’t allow women to drive and places in a top position among other countries that score zero for not having any women in their political field. Anyway, I don’t want to talk much about Saudi Arabia, Everything is Google-able nowadays. You can type women’s rights in Saudi Arabia in the search box and read it yourself.

wadjda

The reason I watched this film because it shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the Director of this film is a woman. This film may focus on how one teenager struggles to buy a bicycle for herself. You might wonder why the story line is so simple. My friends, it is not that simple. In this film lay bricks by bricks women’s issues faced by the Saudi Women. Wadjda is a 10 years old girl who’s a bit peculiar and adventurous of her own. She often played with a boy around her age named Abdullah in their neighborhood. She got jealous seeing Abdullah can ride around it in his bicycle and want to get back at him once she got a bicycle of her own. She asked her mother to buy it for her only to be dismissed by saying ‘you can’t ride it, you are a girl and it will be not good for your health as a woman’. We have been playing a bicycle since we were kids and our parents can bought it for us without any hesitation but there, the girl around wadjda’s age did face this harsh treatment. Wadjda knew that begging her parents won’t change anything; she decided to enter the Quran Recitation competition that bears the money prize. She wanted to use the money prize to buy a bicycle. While I am writing this review, I actually didn’t finish watching this film yet. It is too suffocating to me. I didn’t face this much repression compared to Saudi women but I slightly face it when people often told me I can’t do it because I am a girl. It is so disappointing when those who often incite the gender differences are your own family members.

Waad Mohammed as "Wadjda'
Waad Mohammed as ‘Wadjda’
The bicycle that she wanted to buy.
The bicycle that she wanted to buy.

Wadjda may encounters her own problem in this film but her mother also faces another dilemma of being a wife who is no longer can pregnant and on that note, unable to produce son to her husband. When this happened, taking another wife is often the answer. Islam allows polygamy marriage and man can take 4 wife if he’s able to do so (he’s rich and can support all of them). In this case, her mother unable to produce another child due to complication of labor she experienced during Wadjda. Her Mother in Law already looks for another possible bride for her son and she knew about it because gossips spread around in the neighborhood. She tried to win her husband back by her delicious cooking and gorgeous dress but she knew it won’t help much. Sooner or later, he will still take a second wife. Back to Wadjda’s story, In School Wadjda known as a trouble maker. The Principal of the school always try to find any flaw in Wadjda. If she found one, she will keep talking how it is bad and threatened to expel her from the school. One day, Wadjda was playing around the field where 2 older students sat there doing their own thing. The principal passed by and caught the 2 girls in a suspicious act (both girls actually were doing a fake tattoo on their feet with a marker pen). Wadjda was called upon to be a witness by them because they wanted to prove that they didn’t do anything. Wadjda is so afraid that she can’t participate in the competition told the principal she can’t claim to see anything because she’s too far from them at that time. The principal is afraid that it will be root of Lesbian (which considers in Islam as a huge sin) imposed much strict rules regarding of no holding hands even you are both girls, no showing affection by giving cards or letter to each other and walk apart from each other. Can you believe how absurd it is?

Reem Abdullah as Wadjda's Mother
Reem Abdullah as Wadjda’s Mother
Wadjda and Her Parents.
Wadjda and Her Parents.
The Awful Principal
The Awful Principal

There’s another issue I find it so disturbing that I wanted to talk in this film. When Wadjda joined the religious club in order to enter the competition, the members of the club will practice together. In one class session, they are passing around some photos and joking around with their friends about it. It turned out one of Wadjda’s friend got married to a 20 years old guy. The teacher then entered the class and asks why the fuss that they are making of. They told that one of them is married and the teacher didn’t show any surprise emotion. She just told them that photos are not allowed to bring in class. When you see that kind of scene, you will be like ‘what the fucking fuck, she’s freaking 10’ or even though she’s older than wadjda, it may apart by 1 or 2 years. She’s practically still a kid to me. I just can’t accept any child marriage. The director of this film just shows us a glimpse of child marriage culture happened there. It’s a norm and acceptable there. Even Wadjda’s mother always joked around saying she will marry her off right away. There are certain codes that women should abide by and they are started from this school. There are one scene whereby the principal will nag any students whose laugh and giggling loudly by saying that they are not ashamed of themselves and try to attract attention of men. There is also a scene where Wadjda’s friend move from one location to another when they are playing in the school because male construction workers from another building can see them and it is not good for their honor.

Wadjda and Abdullah
Wadjda and Abdullah
Wadjda and her friends in Religious Club
Wadjda and her friends in Religious Club

I still have another 30 minutes left to finish this film but I chose not to. I can’t do it. I know it’s silly but I can’t help it. I am a bit emotional person, I must say. Overall, This film featuring a helpless girl in the oppressive culture and she try to do it in her way instead of abiding the rule it is so inspirational and in the same time, it is miserable because nobody will support her (not even her own mother). If you wanted to catch a glance what a Saudi women life will be in their country, this film is the good option to consider. Although I didn’t finish it, I read the whole in plot in IMDB. Later, Wadjda did win the Quran Recitation Competition but she didn’t get the money because it will be donated to a Palestinian cause. Her father get married to a second wife and in the end, her mother did buy a bicycle for Wadjda. Wadjda then used it to race against Abdullah. This one is among few films of Middle-eastern that I consider is good. The director didn’t use the film to downgrade her own culture but rather to let the audience think and interpret their own perception of the film.