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Malaysia’s Invisible Children

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In Malaysia, “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah” means the son or daughter of Abdullah.

But the implications are far from positive.

On an identity card or birth certificate, it’s used if the person’s father is listed as ‘unknown’.

This happens for many reasons – if the child is born out of wedlock, or after a rape attack.

And children without their father’s name on official documents can find their rights at risk.

Clarence Chua reports from Kuala Lumpur.

“You basically put a stamp on the child’s head. You say A, you are adopted, B you’re a child born out of wedlock. You know the name, that’s what he uses to get his passport to get is identity card to register for school.”

Dr Hartini Zainudin is the founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, a child advocacy NGO

She’s also mother to three adopted children.

“The first child, his name is Zaid. He is now 6 years-old. When he first came to us he didn’t have a birth certificate so we actually have to go look for the mother 9 months later after he had been given up to make sure she signed over the consent forms. And also the most important thing was to prove that she was Malaysian therefore the child is entitled to be Malaysian. In the birth certificate the mother’s particulars are all there, but the father’s details are not there. There is section 13A so you know he is a child born out of wedlock and then of course his name is Abdullah”.

Muslim Malaysians take the names of their fathers as a surname – but “bin Abdullah” means the child is the son of God.

For Muslims under Malaysian law, this is used when the biological father’s name is unknown, or for example if the child is born out of wedlock.

The rules are rigid. If an adopted child is non-Muslim, he can use his adoptive father’s name or surname.

But following Shariah law, if he is Muslim, this is not possible.

Shariah lawyer Nizam Bashir explains this is not just for children born out of wedlock – it covers a whole range of circumstances.

“There is no option for the parent to decide that they want some other name. For example the child converts as well. The child will be known as bin Abdullah when the child is conceived through artificial insemination techniques that are not approved by the Shahriah. So in all those circumstances the child will be given the “bin Abdullah” to their name”.

“bin Abdullah” is also used for children born to rape victims – and births that take place within six months of marriage, because it’s assumed the baby was conceived before the wedding.

This means children born prematurely could be called ‘illegitimate’ as well.

Illegitimate chidren can’t have their father’s name on the birth certificate.

Without this, a daughter loses inheritance rights from her father. He also can’t take on important roles on her wedding day.  

When the father’s name can’t go on the birth certificate, many parents decide not to get a certificate at all.

But this means children lose all kinds of rights – they can’t even get their national citizenship identification.

Dr Hartini says this punishes individuals their whole life.

“To avoid the stigma of the bin or binti Abdullah this is where they are faking the papers so that we can avoid the whole painful situation of citizenship, statelessness and certificates. If I don’t get the papers then we don’t have access to education here. What’s going to happen? Never mind the stigma and when she gets old enough to marry? She can’t go to university, she won’t get a job.”

This puts children at serious risk. Malaysia is one of the world’s hotspots for human trafficking, and children without birth certificates are vulnerable.

“How are you going to determine whether you’re Malaysian or not if you don’t have papers? So chances are they are going to round up and deport them. To where? It’s tied to trafficking because if you have no papers then you’re open to violence and the traffickers know this. Even if you rescue them because they have no papers, you render them stateless in the system, so it’s a vicious cycle.”

Religious leaders are determined, and have issued fatwas or religious decrees to back up these policies.

Fatwas have no legal status but government agencies will try to conform to them.

Dr Juanda Jaya, a religious head or mufti of the state of Perlis, questions some of the fatwa rulings .

“What’s worse, from what I have been informed, why is there a need, in order for a woman to get married, to bring along the marriage certificate of her parents? We want to close the stigma that Allah has closed, if they repent then Allah has forgiven them but suddenly we punish the child in front of everybody during her most auspicious day. Suddenly the child finds out that she is illegitimate. This will cause people wanting to follow the religion feels that the religion is punishing them.”

Some people want to change this. A recent forum organised by the NGO Sisters in Islam focused on the issue.

Dr Juanda Jaya, a religious head or mufti of the state of Perlis, questions some of the fatwa rulings .

“We may have a different opinion and we give the people the option to choose. Maybe they feel they want a rigid system they can choose. But for others who feel this is punishment, let them the alternative. We must champion this cause otherwise it may result in cases of abandoned babies.”

Perlis issued a fatwa in 2009 allowing children born within the first six months of their parents’ marriage to carry their father’s name. The state of Terengganu has proposed the same step.

Shariah lawyer Nizam Bashir suggests upset parents can take the matter to court.

“The fact that there are certain constitutional rights that every person is entitled to and those are fundamental rights that the government cannot take away from them. So for example there are cases where parents are prepared to take the matter to court, it’s something that can be taken to court because there are rights under the constitution.”


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