Malaysia’s ‘bin Abdullah’ ruling for Muslims will not reduce children’s stigma, activists say, Malaysia News

Muslims born out of wedlock will not be allowed to take their father’s name, but do not have to carry the controversial suffix “bin Abdullah”, Malaysia‘s Federal Court ruled on Thursday in a decision that child rights activists say will not fully alleviate the stigma and victimisation of children.

The apex court’s final decision brings to a close a legal battle that has spanned more than half a decade, after a Muslim couple from the southernmost state of Johor brought a case against the National Registration Department so their son – born five months and 24 days into the marriage – could take on his father’s name.

The Federal Court’s majority ruling said that while the National Registration Department did not have the right to impose the “bin Abdullah” suffix on a child’s name, national laws governing the registration of births did not apply to Muslim children as they did not have a “surname”.

This meant, the court said, that a law allowing fathers to request their surname to be registered as the child’s did not apply to Muslims.

Malaysia‘s Malay-Muslim majority use a patronymic naming system, in which a child’s name is followed by the suffix “daughter of” or “son of” their father’s name. The country practises a dual legal system of secular criminal and civil laws, as well as sharia laws that apply to Muslims.

The country’s National Fatwa Council (NFC) forbids Muslim children from carrying their father’s name if they are born out of wedlock or within the first six months of their parents’ marriage.

These children must then use the suffix “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah” – son or daughter of a servant of Allah – a generic name that is sometimes pushed onto converts to the religion.

Although a 2017 Court of Appeal ruling said the NFC’s fatwa had no force of law and so could not form a legal basis for the authorities to decide on the surname of a child conceived out of wedlock, and that the “bin Abdullah” moniker would lead to “open and public humiliation” of a child, this was later overturned after many conservative Muslims accused the courts of legitimising illicit sex.

The case has attracted widespread attention in the Southeast Asian nation, with 41 parents showing interest in being made a party to it.

Between 2005 and 2015, more than half a million children in Malaysia were born out of wedlock, although it remains unclear how many of these were born to Muslim parents.

Children’s rights activist Hartini Zainudin said it was “appalling” that the interpretation of Islamic law would lead to a child being deemed illegitimate.

“Why is there the need to stigmatise a child and cause harm? No person or child is illegal or illegitimate,” she said.

For Aiman I. Abdullah, 26, the decision was disappointing but unsurprising.

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Malaysian move toward harsher Islamic law divides opposition

“Despite the government’s claimed commitment to protecting children from undue harm and stigma, its political need to protect itself from the conservative majority means that children with the ‘bin Abdullah’ or ‘binti Abdullah’ suffix – like me – will continue to be bullied, harassed and alienated during the most important years of their lives,” he said.

“It is crushing for those who believed that children might have been given the right to simply be children without having such an adult burden placed on them, but that’s where we are now.”

In a 2017 interview with the South China Morning Post, Aiman, who was raised by his extended family, said as a child he was frequently and constantly reminded that he would not be allowed to carry the family name or inherit any property or other assets.

“My cousins laughed at me. Other children at school knew the ‘Abdullah’ in my name meant I was born out of wedlock and they called me names and teased me frequently,” he said.

Malaysia‘s Pakatan Harapan administration has often found itself torn between fulfilling its promises of mutually respectful multiracial policymaking and attempting to win over the Malay-Muslim vote bank, which makes up 60 per cent of the nation’s demographics.

The ruling coalition formed government in 2018, after ousting the previous administration led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which largely operated on race-based policies and championed Malay rights and Islamic values.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.

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