According to a recent report entitled Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages In Sindh, Pakistan, University of Birmingham 2018, an estimated 1000 women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted and then married off to their abductors every year in Pakistan.
Amarnath Motual, former Vice Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told the researchers that more than 20 Hindu girls are abducted every month in Pakistan. A volunteer group, named “Responsible for Equality and Liberty”, estimated that between 20 to 25 Hindu girls are forcibly converted every month.
All this, despite, Pakistan’s having signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which Article 16 confirms the right of every woman to enter into marriage “only with their free and full consent”.
Pakistan has ratified the Child Rights Convention, of which Article 14 (1) states that governments need to respect the right of children to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
According to the Birmingham University report, the victim is abducted and is then subjugated to “sustained emotional and physical abuse often involving threats of violence towards their loved ones.”
“Minorities often do not receive the protection required from state institutions and lack access to justice . The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that the police often turn a blind eye to reports of abduction and forced conversions thereby creating impunity for perpetrators.”
“The police will often either refuse to record a First Information Report or falsify the information, thereby denying families the chance to take their case any further. Both the lower and higher courts of Pakistan have failed to follow proper procedures in cases that involve accusations of forced marriage and forced conversions.”
“The judiciary are often subject to fear of reprisal from extremist elements, in other cases the judicial officers’ personal beliefs influence them into accepting the claims made that the woman/girl converted on her own free will. There is often no investigation into the circumstances under which the conversion takes place and the age of the girl is often ignored.”
“The girl/woman involved is largely left in the custody of her kidnapper throughout the trial process where she is subject to further threats to force her into denying her abduction and rape and claiming that the conversion was willing.”
Involvement of Religious Institutions
The Birmingham University report says that “many religious institutions, local mosques and seminaries fail to investigate the nature of the conversion or the age of the bride and mostly simply accept the word of the abductor. Some organizations, like Minhaj-ul-quran, routinely and as a matter of official policy, encourage the practice of converting members of minority communities by offering rewards for successful conversions. They say that it is the equivalent of Haj-e-Akbari, or the greatest religious duty to Muslims.”
Legal And Legislative Failures
The Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill In February 2013, followed demonstrations in Karachi by political parties and civil society activists, and through pressure from civil society organizations.
“The bill addressed many of the problems surrounding forced conversion and forced marriage as it attempted to mandate specific institutions to be responsible for preventing them as well as laying down legal guidelines for behavior in these cases which would protect the integrity of the court process and enable victims to access justice. It also placed an age limit upon conversions to support existing legislation on age limits for legitimate marriages,” the university report said.
“In November 2016, the Bill was passed unanimously by the Sindh Provisional Assembly. However, the Bill failed to make it into law as the then Governor, Mr. Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, returned it in January 2017.The Bill was effectively blocked by the mobilization of the Islamist groups and parties.”
“Dr. Abdul Qayyum Soomro, the Sindh Chief Minister’s special assistant on religious affairs, December 5, 2016, termed the bill “against the basic principles of Islam.”
Religious parties in Karachi launched a campaign against the bill in order to pressurize the Sindh government into repealing it. The JamaatI-Islami (JI) argued that there could be no age limit on people converting to Islam. Religious parties threatened to lay siege to the Sindh Assembly if the legislature did not repeal the bill,” the report recalled.
Since the failure in Sindh, the Pakistan Hindu Council has attempted to get the Supreme Court to take action on its own against forced conversions and forced marriages. Similar bills have appeared in both the National Assembly and the Punjab Provisional Assembly. But there has been little legislative movement in either case, the report said.
Most Recent Case
In the most recent case of the abduction and conversion of Reena and Raveena from a Sindh village, police had filed a First Information Report (FIR) under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act of 2013. But police also produced a video showing the two girls saying that they had changed their religion voluntarily.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered a probe. But the problem was needlessly made an India-Pakistan issue when India’s Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj mocked at the Pakistan Prime Minister Khan on the state of the minorities in his country. Swaraj’s statement had given the impression that India is the voice of the Hindus of Pakistan. Such an impression will only make forced conversion a question of Pakistani nationalism. This issue will give a whole new complexion to the issue, to the detriment of the oppressed Hindus in Pakistan.
Having acquired world attention, the case of Reena and Raveena is coming up before an Islamabad court in the first week of April. Human rights workers and minorities in Pakistan are hoping that the court will set a shining example.
According to the Karachi-based human rights campaigner and journalist Veengas, the tragic part is that the general population, including the educated middle class, turns a blind eye to the issue and a deaf ear to the pleas of the abducted girl children.
Their standard argument is that poverty drives girls into the arms of those who run conversion rackets. Few raise their finger at the groups (including religious shrines and Madrssahs) which organize and support such conversions.
According to Veengas, the worrying questions are the following: Why only minor girls fall in love and get converted? Why aren’t older and mature girls do it? Why girls do not love boys of a compatible age? How is it possible that girls choose only old men as their lovers?
In 2016, Veengas visited Madarssah Jamia Binoria in Karachi, where she met a Christian and two Hindu girls who were converted to Islam. The place was guarded by gun toting men. When asked why they converted the answer of the all three was the same: “ I was inspired by the teachings of Islam.” But none of them said that they had read the Quran or the Bible or the Gita.
As Veengas was leaving the Madrassah, she saw a man and a girl sitting side by side and watching something on a mobile phone. She was told that the two were to be married. Asked if the girl had the permission of her household, the answer was: “ “No! the Madrassah is their home!”
The abducted minor girls end up at religious shrines. The Bharchundi Dargha is a shrine specially involved in such cases. Shrines and Madrassahs compete over conversions. “Our Madrassah converts authentically. The other Madrassah in Thar is a fake. It does fake conversions,” said Shaikh Ullah Rabbani, who is with Jamia Binoria.
Social And Economic Roots
Daily Dawn recently carried an interesting perspective on forced conversions from a retired police officer who had served in Lasbela district in Balochistan. In his subdivision, 8% of the population was Hindu. There was enviable inter-communal harmony there, as has been the case for centuries. Muslims enthusiastically participated in the recent Holi celebrations and such sentiments are invariably reciprocated by the Hindus.
“ Hindus in Balochistan have always felt more secure vis-à-vis religious persecution. The tribal chiefs consider Hindus, or for that matter any other religious minority, as members of their own extended family and afford them the freedom to live their lives according to their faith. They never acquired any missionary zeal to convert them. The Jams of Lasbela and Bugti tribal chiefs in Dera Bugti, for instance, have always been protective of them. Owing to this, society overall has developed a culture of tolerance and coexistence.”
“Within the jurisdiction of two police stations (Uthal and Bela) in Lasbela there are 18 temples for 5,000 Hindus. This is a powerful indicator of religious freedom, “ the officer wrote.
Most importantly, Hindus of Balochistan are economically well off. They work as contractors, bank employees and landowners. By virtue of their affluence, they enjoy a social status that gives them adequate protection. On the other hand, in Sindh, the Hindus are poor. Sindh is an unequal agrarian society of landlords and serfs. The poor are exploited and their women, including young girls, are considered fair game. Some girls do consider conversion an escape route from grinding poverty.
Additionally, elopement is akin to defilement in Hindu culture. After running away from her family, she sees no way of going back because she will be shunned by her own community. Thus they are trapped in their marriages.
There is also a strong proselytizing zeal among Islamic mullahs in Sindh. Clerics like Mian Mitho from Ghotki and Ayub Jan Sarhandi from Samaro, have become symbols of conversion in Sindh, the officer wrote.