Pakistani Women From Minority Communities Face Disproportionate Discrimination
The decision to mark 11th August as the National Minorities’ Day in Pakistan reflected the state’s will to uphold minority rights. The initiative was taken in 2009 by the then government, supported by a number of political parties and carried forward by the successive governments. However, more than a decade later, one cannot mention any significant achievement with regards to advancement of minority rights in Pakistan.
As the government of Pakistan marks National Minorities’ Day today, it must seriously reflect on the current situation of minorities in Pakistan, particularly women and girls from these communities.
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees religious freedom and equality to its citizens under Articles 20 and 25. Moreover, Pakistan is also legally bound under the international human rights law to ensure non-discrimination and equality among its masses, including on the basis of gender and religion or belief. Despite these constitutional safeguards, women and girls belonging to religious minority or belief communities face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, which are often severer than those faced by an average Pakistani woman and girl.
Gender-based discrimination against the religious minority women and girls ranges from social exclusion in daily life and different forms of harassment to abduction, rape, forced conversion and marriage. They also fall victim to underage marriage that is prohibited by the law.
Religious minorities’ population data of 2017’s national census has not been published yet. Therefore, based on the national census of 1998, Pakistan’s religious demography is assessed as 96.28% Muslims and 3.72% religious minorities, including Christians (1.59 %), Hindus (1.6%) Ahmadis (0.22%), Scheduled cast (0.25%) and others (0.07% (Sikhs, Parsis, Bhais etc.)
An estimated population of minority women in Pakistan is around 3 million. Out of this, approximately 90% reside in Sindh and Punjab and 92% belong to Hindu, Christian and Scheduled Cast communities. Majority of these women work in informal and formal labour sectors like agriculture, as sanitation, brick kilns and domestic worker. Around two percent of minority women work as teachers, doctors, nursing, professors or in an office.
In general, gender-based discrimination is prevalent in Pakistan. However, minority women’s case has several angles as they face discrimination being a woman in a patriarchal society, then as a member of religious minority communities. And if they happen to be from the poor section of society, which majority of them are, this adds further into their vulnerabilities.
A recent study ‘The index of religious diversity and inclusion in Pakistan’ by the Centre for Law and Justice noted that in public spaces, Hindu scheduled caste women can be easily identified by their attire (ghagra and choora (bangle), sari and bindi. Christian women are also sometimes identified from their attire. This identification sometimes results in their harassment.
In another survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) – Sindh chapter, several minority women and girls, particularly from Hindu community have reported discrimination at their workplace due to their religious believes. 67% women reported that they have been persuaded by their fellow workers or owners to embrace Islam. 40% of respondents reported that they often have to deal with offensive comments and misbehaviour.
Members from the Muslim community often joke about their religious practices and it really hurt them, but they have no choice but to tolerate it. In response to the question of being bullied at their work place 59% replied in affirmative, out of which 91 percent said they were abused verbally while eight percent claimed to have been physically abused.
In 2019, Christian Solidarity Worldwide carried out a study ‘Religious Freedom Under Attack’, that noted several cases of forced conversion and marriage accompanied with the crime of abduction and rape of minority women and girls. In 2016, as a progressive move to address the issue of forced conversions in Sindh the Provincial Assembly passed a bill against this practice. However, before the governor could sign it into law, religious organisations threatened to hold countrywide protests. Resultantly, the government withdrew the bill. No such legislation was initiated by any other province or at the federal level.
In addition, though the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act sets the legal minimum age of marriage at 18 years, but for the minor girls from religious minority this law is totally disregarded on the pretext of so-called religious conversion. Same is the case in rest of the provinces with legal minimum age of marriage being 16 years for girls.
Besides this, absence or outdated personal laws of the religious minority communities is one of the challenges for them, especially for the minority women and girls. In 2016, the Hindu marriage bill was first passed by the Sindh assembly and later by the National Assembly, but no rules of business have been introduced so far.
The Christian marriage and divorce amendment bill has been presented several times but it has not been turned into an Act of the Parliament, on the pretext of disagreement among some sections of the said community. But this is no excuse for the government to not fulfill its obligation to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act 2017, passed by the Punjab assembly in 2018 is only applicable in the said province. Such legislation is required by rest of the provincial governments.
Moreover, family laws are not in place for the other minority communities that provide for a marriage registration/certificate and other important safeguards and arrangements for fulfillment of human rights.
In 2012, ‘Life on the Margins’, a study conceptualised by the author of this article and carried out by the National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace on the situation of minority women noted that a high proportion of the women interviewed (42.5%) stopped short of replying to specific questions on faith-based discrimination, for fear of undesirable consequences if the issue was discussed. Nevertheless, 43% of the respondents said that they or a member of their family had faced religious discrimination. A major portion (40%) of discrimination has been at workplace. The educational institutions come at the second number with 24% and in their own localities the ratio is 18%. Only 14.3% said they never faced such discrimination. The study further noted that hate speech is the most rampant form of discrimination faced by the minority women, with 32% of them saying they had suffered such instances. 27% said they had faced difficult and derogatory questions and 19% said that Muslim majority members had disallowed them from eating with them.
An adequate political representation and effective participation of minority women in politics is also a big question. Despite the fact that there have been reserve seats for religious minorities in national and provincial assemblies and the Senate, it is rare that these seats are allocated to women from the minority communities. They face double jeopardy in this regard. The reserved seats for minorities are mostly allocated to the male members of the minority communities, and reserved seats for women are mainly allocated to the women from majority (Muslim) community. This shows that minority women are at disadvantage as compare to the women from majority community and male members of their own communities to be in the assemblies.
The same trend has been observed when it comes to the local government. This tendency indicates that the minority women face discrimination from their community as well as from the majority community and the society in general.
Currently, out of 10 reserved seats for minorities and 60 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly, only one woman (Mrs. Shunila Ruth) is on reserved seats for minorities. In the Senate, not even a single seat has been allocated to minority women out of the 4 reserved seats for minorities. However, only one seat is allocated to minority woman (Ms. Keshoo Bai) out of 17 Senators on women seats.
In Sindh Assembly out of total 9 reserved seats for minorities, not even a single seat is allocated to a minority woman, only one legislator (Mrs. Mangla Sharma) is given a seat out of 28 reserved seats for women. In Punjab Assembly, only one woman (Mrs. Ruffin Julies) is on reserved seat for minorities. Out of total 8 seats, from 66 reserved seats for women none is allocated to minority women.
In Khyber Pakhtaunkhwa (KP) Assembly, no seat is allocated for minority women out of 4 reserved seats for religious minorities and 26 reserve seats for women. Same is the case with Balochistan assembly with 3 reserved seats for minorities and 10 for women. None is allocated to minority women representative. This whole provincial and national set up speaks volumes about the double jeopardy faced by minority women vis-à-vis their political rights and effective participation.
Thus, in order to bring women from the minority community at par and address multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against them, the government needs to take a multidimensional approach. Multiple reforms should be introduced at law, policy and administrative levels and special measures with regards to their social, economic, civil and political rights must be undertaken. Without these concrete steps to improve the situation, celebrating Minorities Day every year will not change anything.
The writer is a human rights professional, researcher and trainer. She works with the Minority Rights Group International and tweets @NaumanaSuleman.