Malaysian mothers win legal battle in ‘sexist’ citizenship case


A group of mothers in Malaysia won a legal battle Thursday for the right to pass their nationality to their children born abroad, a landmark court decision hailed by activists as a giant step toward gender equality and could spur reforms on discriminatory citizenship laws in other countries.

Six mothers and campaign group Family Frontiers said the decades-old law is discriminatory and argued that the provision violated the constitution, in a lawsuit filed at the High Court.

The High Court ruled on Thursday that the word “father” must be read to include mothers, and said their overseas-born children were entitled to Malaysian citizenship.

“I’m so thrilled. It’s a big win,” one of the mothers – former squash champion ChoongWai Li – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. Choong said that she had dressed her 7-year-old son in a T-shirt with the Malaysian flag to celebrate.

Like the other mothers in the case, Choong is married to a foreign national and gave birth abroad. The women said the citizenship rules split up families, risked trapping women in abusive relationships, and could leave children stateless.

Malaysia is one of twenty-four countries that do not give mothers and fathers equal rights under the country’s citizenship laws.

The country’s constitution gives fathers the automatic right to confer citizenship to their children born abroad, but it doesn’t mention mothers.

Family Frontiers said in a statement that the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruling meant that Malaysian women have the same automatic rights as Malaysian men to pass their citizenship to their overseas-born children.

“Malaysian mothers have faced family separation, along with obstacles to accessing residency, education, health care and social services for their children. Today’s ruling is a monumental step in the direction of gender equality,” Family Frontiers said.

The government – which has previously described the case as “frivolous” – did not respond to a request for comment, but is expected to appeal the court ruling, according to campaigners.

It is unknown how many women in Malaysia have been affected by the issue, but Family Frontiers said the number of binational families was rising as more people spent time working abroad.

Twenty-four countries do not give mothers and fathers equal rights to pass their nationality to their children, and activists said the legal victory could drive change.

“This decision only increases the momentum for equal nationality laws around the world,” said Catherine Harrington of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights.

“We believe other governments will be encouraged by this decision to enact these needed reforms and urge them to do so without delay.”

Family Frontiers said mothers returning to Malaysia after giving birth abroad faced problems accessing residency, education, healthcare and social services for their children.

Lawyers said the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the issue, with some women unable to return home due to entry restrictions on foreign nationals – including their children.

“This judgement recognises Malaysian women’s equality, and marks one step forward to a more egalitarian and just Malaysia,” said Family Frontiers president Suri Kempe.

Another mother in the case – bank executive Myra Silwizya – said she had battled for years to get citizenship for her 8-year-old daughter, who was born in Zambia.

“I am so happy and I cannot wait to tell her that she is also Malaysian, just like her brother,” she said.

Non-Malaysian children do not have the same rights to healthcare and education as Malaysian children, meaning their parents face additional costs for schooling, health insurance and visas.

Six nations, including Barbados, Iraq and Liberia, have similar rules to those in Malaysia, while another 18 – among them Nepal, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia – do not let mothers confer citizenship to children even if they were born in the country. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)