Arzoo Raja Case: National Dialogue Needed To Save Our Daughters From Forced Marriages

Arzoo Raja Case: National Dialogue Needed To Save Our Daughters From Forced Marriages
Bringing the plight of non-Muslim Pakistanis into light, the case of Arzoo Raja – 13-year-old Christian minor converted and married off to a 44 year old man, has jolted the nation’s conscience. From human rights defenders to politicians and general public, every humanist is distraught and in protest over the tragedy that has struck the child as well as her parents. The alarms raised in the aftermath of this case serve as yet another reminder that some of us remain to be second class citizens and that the discrimination is dug too deep down to be extracted in a span of more than seven decades.

This case of forced conversion and underage marriage is not new, but among the very few that make it to the media hype. There has been but little unmasking of the miseries of the religious minorities that are usually carpeted under one pretext or another. To our predicament unfortunately, this may not be the last such case either, given the pattern of apathy followed in all previous cases i.e. a handful of condemnations, social media outrage, civil society protests; and it all dies down within some days of reactionary activism, until the next case of similar intensity.

The sensitivity surrounding such issues can be gauged from the fact that even the non-Muslim public and community representatives are reluctant to openly raise the issue or voice in favor of victims at substantial forums. From first-hand experience of having handled such cases from my own community, it is an unfortunate reality that there is hardly any support from the communities themselves for the victims in face of injustice. The concerned Hindu Panchayats are always found reluctant to intervene in the cases of forced conversions out of fear for intimidation while the lawyers are disinclined to take up cases. The situation is far worse for the marginalized/scheduled castes, as majority of their cases are not even reported, let alone taken action upon.

And on national level, there are examples of indifference and timidity, further discouraging the communities from speaking out. The recent Islamabad temple controversy that showed a lackluster government in front of a few fanatics gives an impression of helplessness and makes us worry, that if a government on “same page” with the mighty institutions trembles before a smattering crowd, then where do our vulnerable communities stand? In fact, when one of the government allies (PMLQ) went on to publicly denounce our basic right to have a worship place in the country’s Capital, then our community elders’ weakness is not unwarranted.

Most of the cases of forced conversions are reported mainly from Sindh [since the province is home to major chunk of the minority population]. The demand for providing legal cover to minorities against arbitrary conversions is the need of the hour. However, expecting a single political party to enact laws for illegalization of the forced conversions to mitigate the crisis denote misapprehensions regarding understanding of the problem.

Several bills have been tabled in Sindh Assembly and the Sindh government has attempted to legislate twice in 2016 and 2019 respectively, but any efforts at criminalizing forced conversion have met with the terrifying backlash by certain notorious and extremist groups. These groups often issue death threats to the sitting ministers of the province even on sectarian basis on matters of trivial importance.

It is important to note here that Sindh is the only province to introduce laws for the illegalization of forced conversions. Meanwhile, in the absence of relevant laws, Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act (2013) has been helpful against underage marriages under guise of conversions. In many cases, the underage girls have been rescued and shifted to government-run shelter homes until the age of marriage, as has happened in Arzoo’s case. Although CMR Act works as a deterrent to underage marriages in the name of conversions in Sindh, unfortunately other provinces lack such legislation due to which girls are taken outside Sindh to register marriage, as seen in the globally hyped Reena & Raveena case, where the girls were fled to Punjab due to Sindh’s CMR laws that prohibited marriage registration within Sindh.

However, the socio-economic factors leading the underage girls being trapped in love to be converted and married off need to be looked upon on national level. What seems to be a concerted ‘drive to covert girls into Muslims’ is not a single province’s problem. Moreover, the national narrative on the issue of forced conversions is being led by the central powers. For instance, the definition of a forced conversion is yet to be chalked out. A Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions was formed in November 2019 which was well-received by the minority rights activists. The head of the parliamentary committee has found himself in hot waters recently when he denied the validity of complaints, stating that conversions of Hindu girls in Sindh could not be considered forced due to their consent. Similarly, the economic factors behind conversions could not be considered forced either, but exploitation.

Another central body supposed to safeguard the rights of minorities, the National Minority Commission, unfortunately so far has surfaced as more of a gimmick & at dominating the narrative regarding the status of religious minorities in the country. Moreover, its formation is dubious & baseless on many grounds and currently under question in the apex court for being in contravention with Supreme Court’s 2019 Suddle Commission. The Commission also does not enjoy the status of a statutory body, nor does it have financial autonomy – being completely reliant on Ministry of Religious Affairs headed by a known right-wing hardliner.

Although after the passage of 18th amendment, it is important that the provinces take lead and establish their own independent commissions to deal with the issues of minorities. The ambiguities regarding basic definition of the forced conversions and the obstacles in the provinces’ efforts to criminalize forced conversions need to be backed by a coordinated national effort, so that there is at least consensus on protection of the vulnerable against politically-motivated elements, unlike the definition of a child that is still not the same across the country.

Therefore, what most importantly is required to deal with the issue is a national dialogue involving all the parties and stakeholders to jointly address the issue. When there can be national dialogue over FATF and national security, then the same can be made possible to save the daughters of fellow non-Muslim Pakistanis – if considered as daughters of the nation than as the daughters of the non-Muslims.

For Jinnah’s dream of inclusive Pakistan, the minorities must be treated as equal citizens with equal rights, rather than being questioned on patriotism. For despite our minor daughters getting raped in the name of conversions, our worship places being vandalized on almost daily basis, our homes being raided by charged mobs and blasphemy accusations being leveled against us just to settle scores, we come out in hordes holding the flag of Pakistan, yet again reminding the state that we also are amongst you.

I would end here leaving the readers with a thought that, would those converting our underage daughters and those defending such heinous acts under the pretense of consent allow their own underage daughters to abandon their families, convert and illegally marry the men of their fathers’ age?

If yes, then I rest my case.