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Govt Needs To Pay More Than Lip Service To Stop Forced Conversions

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If members of parliamentary committee want to seriously address the phenomenon of forced conversion, then it is time for them to go beyond lip service to minority rights, and facilitate in enacting and enforcing the law against the practice, writes Shazia George. 

The parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions has decided to study a few cases that would help identify loopholes and strengthen measures to tackle the threat of forced proselytism that minorities in Pakistan are subjected to. Members of the parliamentary committee consider forced conversion a social issue, not a religious matter.

This may not be a religious matter, but religious forces have always opposed legislation against forced conversion despite the Council of Islamic Ideology dubbing the forcible faith conversion as an un-Islamic practice. The resistance by religious groups may be due to the reports claiming that several seminaries patronize proselytism by providing the abductors with legal, financial and logistics support. 

In Pakistan, aggrieved minority community labels conversion and marriage of underage minority girls as un-willful, which is considered willful by religious groups. Legally, it is not necessary for a non-Muslim girl to change her religion before marrying a Muslim man. We have witnessed numerous cases of willful marriage through courts where mostly the families are not on speaking terms with the couple initially, but they end up accepting the marriage and restoring good relations. This makes us question the phenomenon of faith conversion that influences girls to leave their parents and siblings for good despite there being no compulsion on the marriage of a couple from different religions.

We have witnessed a clear pattern in the majority of cases of alleged forced conversion. Firstly, minor girls from the Hindu or Christian community are abducted, and taken to a different province, mostly from Sindh to Punjab where the minimum legal age of marriage for girls is 16 years. This makes it difficult for parents of the girls to pursue the case, and find the whereabouts of their girls. Secondly, certificates of marriage and conversion showing the age of girls above 18 years, are presented in the court. Thirdly, prayers are filed in the court for the couple’s protection from the girls’ family to tackle the FIR of abduction against perpetrators. Fourthly, girls make statements before the court that they want to stay with their husbands. Fifthly, the girls are barred from meeting non-Muslim family members.

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Although cases of conversion continue unabated in Pakistan, and there is no progress in any legislative assembly to outlaw forced conversions despite a private member’s bill pending in parliament,  we have observed a positive trend in cases. In some cases, courts in Punjab and Sindh ordered that girls who had become victims of coerced faith conversions and unsolicited marriages be returned to their parents. This was only made possible recently owing to courageous statements made by victims Charlotte Javed (Faisalabad), Saima Javed (Sahiwal), Narish Nisha (Karachi), Pumy Muskan (Sargodha) and Mehak Kumari (Jacobabad) before the courts of law.

The judiciary is responsible to apply the laws to protect human rights. However, judges are found inconsistent in passing orders in the cases of forced conversion and child marriage, as some of them sanction marriages of underage converts on the pretext of puberty under the Islamic law. Despite child marriage and sexual intercourse with a minor being a crime in Pakistan, our legal system pardons the abductors for assaulting underage minority girls on the basis of certificates for conversion and marriage produced in the court, which many times turn out to be fabricated. This leaves an impression that the perpetrators who commit heinous crimes resorting to religion, enjoy impunity in Pakistan.

Hence, the judges should pass judgments implementing the legal provisions that make the offences child marriage and forced marriage punishable by law. The courts must ensure that the victims of forced conversion or child marriage get their statements recorded without any duress and threat so that perpetrators and their abettors are brought to justice.  

It is pertinent to note that two remarkable judgements were passed recently where the court had decided the fate of underage children converting to Islam. Lahore High Court in the Pumy Muskan case passed a judgment, declaring that minor children lack the legal capacity to change the religion on their own. Sindh High Court in the Mehak Kumari case issued a verdict, declaring that underage converts could continue to stay with their non-Muslim parents. Both these decisions by high courts set a judicial precedent that lower courts must follow, and these rulings might help frame legislation and contribute to mitigate the suffering of minorities to some extent.

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Apart from lack of legal safeguards, the practice of forced conversion has had adverse effects on the lives of minorities that leave minority communities with the feeling of insecurity, and lack of access to justice, which brings them to prevent minority girls from pursuing education owing to fear of sexual abuse. The majority of the girls converted willfully or forcibly are never returned to their families, and their parents have to pay a huge price by living their lives, believing that their girls would be alive, though out of sight.

It is worth noting that we have observed a few cases where victims of forced conversion and forced marriage have returned to their families, and all girls have something in common to say that ‘abductor’ so-called ‘husband’ ruined their lives, but they are still at large. The sufferings of such victims are never over, as the aftermath of injustice and stigma will haunt their families forever.

Both the federal and provincial governments share responsibility for negligence over criminalizing forced conversions. Although the parliamentary committee representing National Assembly and Senate, is mandated to hold public hearings, carry out inquiries including all those concerned, and hold meetings with civil administration and political actors so as to create an integrated system of detection, reporting, vigilance and response concerning forced conversions, yet it has failed to make any meaningful progress since its formation in November 2019.

If the members of parliamentary committee intent to seriously address the phenomenon of forced conversion, then it is time for them to go beyond lip service to minority rights, and facilitate in enacting and enforcing the law. They must take a firm stand to strengthen measures which include, inter alia, prosecuting perpetrators and abettors, and setting 18 years as minimum legal age for marriage and conversion, to end the menace of forced conversion.

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