"Once they are converted and their identity card is stamped "Islam," there are far-reaching consequences. Shanmuga said children who are converted must study Islam at school and are subject to Shariah laws that state that Muslims cannot marry outside the faith, must raise their children as Muslims and cannot participate in non-Muslim religious ceremonies"
Her husband converted children to Islam without asking her. Through most of their 17-year marriage, M. Indira Gandhi and her husband observed rituals that she considered integral to their Hindu faith, she says. Each morning they would pray before a shrine, and on Fridays they would fast. During festivals they wore brightly colored, traditional outfits to attend their local temple.
Those were traditions Gandhi, a kindergarten teacher in the town of Ipoh, Malaysia, assumed they would be passing on to their three young children.
But nearly a year ago, she 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 - and he then won custody of them through the ruling of an Islamic court.
"If he wants to convert, OK," Gandhi said. "But these are children that were born from both of us."
Her husband's actions have left Gandhi navigating the conflicting jurisdictions of Malaysia's religious and civil courts in a case that has challenged the authority of Islamic Shariah courts in this predominantly Muslim country.
Under Malaysia's two-tier judicial system, 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 cases fall to an Islamic court.
The court ruling granting Gandhi's husband, Muhammad Ridzuan Abdullah, custody of their children came last year. But last month, in what some called a landmark ruling, a civil court overturned the Shariah court's decision and transferred custody back to Gandhi. On Thursday, Ridzuan failed in his bid to obtain a stay order on that ruling.
On Friday, Gandhi asked the court for permission to contest the children's conversion. The Ipoh High Court is scheduled to hand down its ruling on April 30.
One of her lawyers, K. Shanmuga, said he could not recall an instance when a civil court had overturned a child's conversion to Islam.
Lawyers say they have seen an increasing number of cases in recent years in which one parent, typically the father, has converted to Islam and converted the children without the other parent's knowledge.
Once they are converted and their identity card is stamped "Islam," there are far-reaching consequences. Shanmuga said children who are converted must study Islam at school and are subject to Shariah laws that state that Muslims cannot marry outside the faith, must raise their children as Muslims and cannot participate in non-Muslim religious ceremonies.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer and president of the National Human Rights Society of Malaysia, said he believed that some parents had converted their children to Islam to gain a "tactical advantage" in custody disputes.
In recent years, he said, civil courts have ruled that a convert to Islam is entitled to take a custody dispute to a Shariah court, even if the other partner is a non-Muslim.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to appear in Shariah court, and lawyers say such a court is more likely to award custody to the Muslim parent when the children have been converted.
Malaysia's Constitution says that the religion of a child under 18 should be decided by the parent or guardian. Some lawyers have argued that this should be interpreted to mean both parents, but the courts have not agreed, ruling that the consent of one parent is sufficient to convert a child to Islam.
Once a person has officially become a Muslim, it is difficult to change back. It requires permission from the Shariah court, but Shanmuga said there were no established criteria for renouncing Islam.
"Anybody who steps out of Islam, the Shariah court and the general Muslim population frown on," said Mohammad Hashim Kamali, an Islamic law expert and chief executive of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies. "The procedures are not made easy for them."