By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
A 22-member parliamentary committee on forced conversions was formed by Pakistan Senate and National Assembly on November 21, 2019, to work on legislation to prevent forced conversions and protect rights of minorities in Pakistan.
In recent years, Pakistan has become infamous for enforced disappearances and abductions of people belonging to different ethnicities, sects and gender. The abduction of mostly minor girls belonging to sections of the religious minority has added a completely new dimension to Pakistan’s fractured social structure.
Forced conversions take place when some sort of violence, physical, emotional and/or psychological, is used to guarantee a religious conversion. Thus, victims of forced conversions are usually abducted and submitted to intimidation or threats and coerced to select between bearing the abuse or converting. Violence is commonly directed not only at the victims, but also used or threatened on their close relations.
Recent incidents of abduction, followed by forced conversation and marriage include: 14-year old Christian girl, Huma Younus from Karachi was kidnapped, forcibly converted and married to a Muslim man on October 10, 2019. A 19-year-old Sikh girl, who went missing for days, was forcibly converted to Islam and made to marry a Muslim man in Nankana Sahib near Lahore. Also in August, a Hindu girl was abducted and forced to marry a Muslim man in Pakistan’s Sindh Province. She was forcibly converted to Islam after being abducted by a classmate, Babar Aman, along with Mirza Dilawar Baig, a member of Pakistan’s ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf. In March, two minor Hindu sisters Reena and Raveena from near the town of Daharki in Sindh were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam before being married to Muslim men.
Pakistan has recently witnessed a large number of cases of abductions and forced conversions and subsequent marriages of girls from minority communities. Finding reliable data on this issue is difficult. However, according to a US-based Sindhi Foundation, over 1000 young Sindhi Hindu girls between the ages of 12 and 28 have been abducted, forcibly married and converted to Islam. A 2015 report by the South Asia Partnership-Pakistan in collaboration with Aurat Foundation found that that at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The report said the conversions take place in the Thar region, particularly in the districts of Tharparkar, Umerkot, Ghotki, Sanghar, Jacobabad and Mirpur Khas. The report also mentioned the nexus of wealthy landlords, extremist religious organisations, weak local courts and an indifferent administration as working together in this forced arrangement.
This issue affects women differently from men. Women are victims of forced conversion and subsequent forced marriage. It is not only related to democratic rights, but it is also related to discrimination based on class and gender. Pakistan’s prevalent feudal and patriarchal society makes women more susceptible to forced conversion. They are poorer, considered subordinate to men and, in many cases, their identification documents are not prepared. Birth registration of girls are disproportionately lower to those of boys. Likewise, there is considerable disparity with the Identity Registration of girls and boys. Girls are perhaps not considered important enough or an employable member of a household. Therefore, there is no need to get their identification documents.
Acts of forced conversion mostly have institutional support and legitimacy. If the women report any form of coercion to state authorities, their reports are disregarded. It is either the landlord, feudal system, religious seminary or shrine, working in tandem with the local administration and police, which hastens the process of abduction, forced conversion and marriage. They are shielded by the government, which is scared of upsetting them in the tense, often unstable environment of Pakistani politics, in which an attack on a religious figure is seen as an attack on Islam and liable to draw out extremists.
“This appears to be a systematic, organized trend and it needs to be seen in the broader context of the coercion of vulnerable girls and young women from communities that are already marginalized by their faith, class and socio-economic status,” said Mehdi Hasan, Chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He further stated, “The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem that should concern ‘mainstream’ (Muslim) Pakistan.”
On November 16, 2019, Asad Iqbal Butt, HRCP’s Vice-Chairperson for Sindh chapter, said a very sophisticated and organised campaign by religious leaders was behind forced conversions of Hindu girls. He said, “These spiritual leaders’ devotees first earn the trust of Hindu girls, and then motivate them to change their religion in some cases,” adding, “in other instances, the devotees kidnap the girls with the support of their pirs. Since the converted girls are not allowed to meet their families, we do not know what becomes of them.”
In July, 2019, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a resolution demanding that the practice of forced conversions and abductions of Hindu girls must stop and action be taken against those involved in such activities. The resolution was adopted months after the HRCP, in its annual report, raised concern about incidents of forced conversions and marriages of Hindu and Christian girls, saying around 1,000 such cases were reported in the southern Sindh province alone in 2018.
According to the Centre for Social Justice, at least 159 cases were reported between 2013 and 2019. Some 16 girls and young women have gone before the Sindh High Court asking for support against their forced marriages. There are no concrete numbers for the rest of the country, which is around 96.28 percent Muslim, according to the official Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
Earlier, in 2016, Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a bill against forced religious conversions: The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act. The bill, however, was returned two months later by Sindh’s then Governor, Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, without being ratified, due to pressure from influential conservative and extremist Muslim groups.
Earlier, the Hindu community in Pakistan carried out massive demonstrations calling for strict action to be taken against those responsible for forced conversions, while reminding Prime Minister Imran Khan of his promises to the country’s minorities. Last year, during his election campaign, Khan had said his party’s agenda was to uplift the various religious groups across Pakistan and said they would take effective measures to prevent forced marriages of Hindu girls.
However, religious clerics claim that hardly any case of forced religious conversion occurs in Pakistan. Religious minorities in Pakistan are facing problems because of the power and influence of religion on the government and country. Unfortunately, in religious matters, the attitude of all Pakistani governments has been apologetic, causing distress to citizens from minority communities and marginal sections.
*About the author: The writer is a Research Fellow with the Institute for Conflict Management
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor