Combating Forced Conversions Should Be A National Priority
The members of Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, under the Chairpersonship of Senator Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, visited Sindh province from October 6-9 to meet with victims of forced conversion and their families. They also held meetings at Mirpur Mathelo, Sukker and Karachi where they heard from community leaders, minorities’ representatives and members of civil society. In addition, they met with parliamentarians, Advisor to Chief Minister of Sindh, the secretary of the Sindh human rights department, the Sindh chief secretary, IG police and other government officials to explore systemic aspects of the issue. This will allow the committee to collect concrete evidence regarding the prevalent trend of forced conversions.
The Chairperson informed the media on October 9 that a comprehensive bill to stop forced conversions will be submitted to Parliament after consultations with all stakeholders including minority leaders, civil society groups and religious leaders. Next month the committee will visit Tharparkar, Sanghar, Badin, Mirpurkhas and other parts of Sindh that have reported incidents of forced conversion. Moreover, they will visit parts of Punjab before submitting their recommendations to the parliament.
The 23-member committee comprising members of both the National Assembly and the Senate was set up in November 2019, having the mandate to officially probe into and intervene into the cases of forced conversions.
Minority girls suffer triple jeopardy in Pakistan; vulnerability as a child, as a female and as religious minority. Day after day, terrible and heart-wrenching stories come to light, prompting concerns about the need to protect vulnerable minority girls from forced conversions. At least 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted to Islam in the country annually, according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s latest report “State of Human Rights 2019”. Many of these girls belong to the Hindu community in Sindh, where most of Pakistan’s eight million Hindus live. Locals claim such abductions are so common that they affect every other family, with a majority of those targeted being underage. Some victims are as young as 12 years old. Reports state that in Umerkot district alone, around 25 forced marriages take place every month. Centre for Social Justice recently shared a list of 74 incidents in six years of allegedly forced conversions of young minority girls in Punjab in their ongoing research.
The names change, the places change, the dreadful stories remain the same. It could be Rinkle, Raveena, Mehek or Huma, their fates are linked by their faith. Data shows that episodes of forced conversion are accompanied by a range of other criminal offenses, including, but not limited to, assault, kidnapping, abduction, forced marriage, child marriage, statutory rape, rape, gang-rape, forced prostitution, and use or threat of use of force.
The fear of kidnapping and conversion has had an impact even on affluent Hindu and Sikh families, who, over the years, have even stopped their girls from getting an education after primary school. They say that this is the only way for them to protect vulnerable girls.
In one case, on September 17, almost two months after her disappearance, Saneha Kinza Iqbal, the daughter of a pastor appeared in the court of Lahore, dressed in a burqa and accompanied by around 20 family members of her husband who is twice her age. The teenager claimed to have embraced Islam and expressed that her family is now a threat to her. On the marriage certificate her age is 20 years contrary to her school certificate and baptism certificate where she is 16.
In another case in September, 14-year-old Parsha Kumari from Khairpur was abducted and married to Abdul Saboor. Like in most conversion cases, the family produced a school certificate to verify age, but a ‘free-will affidavit’ from the kidnapper-husband set the minor’s age at 18. Thus, showing that the girl is an adult and can make her own decisions.
In August, a teenage Hindu girl, Simran Kumari from Ghotki, was kidnapped and then miraculously resurfaced at the shrine of Bharchundi Sharif of Mian Mitha, infamous for converting thousands of Hindu girls to Islam. Kumari’s family members are now forbidden to see their daughter and she has been married off to her Muslim kidnapper.
This is a popular way to hide forced conversions to Islam — to say the girl was 18 at the time, and show a fake age certificate or say she has reached puberty. She is an adult then, and no more questions are to be asked. The dilemma of each forced conversion case is that no medical examinations are conducted to determine the age of the minor by the authorities independently.
While these cases are largely devoid of mainstream media coverage, it is the local media that manage to highlight some of the more prominent incidents. Many cases in which influential locals and religious leaders are involved go unreported because of pressure put on the media not to report the stories.
The relative ease and impunity with which minority women are kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and unlawfully married to Muslim men, is attributable to a number of systemic factors. The neglectful, complicit and even hostile attitude of the police and judicial officers put the aggrieved party at a disadvantaged position. It is a ground reality that victims and their families remain too scared or too reluctant to report the case. Conversions coupled with discriminatory laws and societal prejudices make life miserable for religious minorities in the country.
Moreover, an overwhelming majority of the functionaries of the justice system identify themselves with the majority faith and maybe potentially under the influence of subjective beliefs associated with the divine reward for siding with the individual responsible for converting someone’s faith to their religion. Both the lower courts and the higher courts of the country have displayed bias and a lack of conviction to enable proper procedures in cases that involve indictment of forced conversion and forced marriage. On August 4, at Lahore High Court, the honourable Judge Raja Muhammad Shahid Abbasi remarked on Maira Shehbaz’s bogus marriage document, “our grandparents or parents tied the knot at a time when no marriage certificates were issued, but their marriages were considered valid”. Lahore High Court then decided in the favour of Muhammad Nakash, the abductor, ruling that the girl had embraced Islam.
What Does the Law Say?
A discrepancy endures between the legal safeguards enshrined under the Constitution, the human rights instruments ratified by Pakistan and the criminal justice system practices on the ground. Pakistan is an adoptee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion but no one shall be subject to compulsion to change their religion. This is true for all religions; minority or majority religion. In case of Pakistan, once the women convert, there is no going back, as estrangement would mean a death sentence. In many cases, women are also told that their families are ‘kafirs’ and they cannot meet them. It curbs their access to justice as they remain in the control of men who converted them. No one hears from these women directly after they ‘abscond’.
At the same time, the Constitution of Pakistan (Art. 20) gives the right to profess, practice and propagate religion to every citizen. It means, neither the majority religious denominations nor the minority religious denominations can impose its religious will on the other citizen.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2017 (IV) prohibits forced marriages, making marriage of a minor and a non-Muslim woman an offense punishable with no less than five years of imprisonment. However, this legal safeguard remains largely unimplemented, primarily because the government has failed to take ownership of the law.
Yet there is no law specifically dedicated to curtailing the relentless spree of forced conversions. Two such bills, tabled in 2016 and then 2019, were shot down. Recently, on September 24, the Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rejected The Protection of Rights of Minorities Bill, 2020 which also covered the subject of forced conversions. The bills demanded that jail terms be sanctioned for anyone guilty of coercion, an age limit of 18 years upon conversions and enabling greater due process.
In the absence of any law particular against forced conversion in Pakistan, there is hardly any will from the government to effectively implement the child marriage laws in place. There is no dearth of cases, but the non-seriousness of the government is visible because it continues to agonize over the “definition” of what constitutes forced conversion, with ample involvement of the clergy. One wonders how many more minors have to be kidnapped and converted for lawmakers to be able to define what a forced conversion is, how to independently verify age of minors, what is free will and what is statutory rape, and how the law should see sexual relationships with anyone below 16 (which is legal marriage age for girls in Pakistan except Sindh).
Ironically, each time a case of forceful conversion is reported, the state reiterates its promise of enacting laws on such conversions. However, federal and provincial governments both share responsibility of the gross negligence that accompanies the lack of legislation on forced conversions.
The Way Forward
A comprehensive set of legal, policy and administrative measures is required at the federal and provincial levels to prevent and eliminate forced conversions in the future. Therefore, the recommendations of Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions should be taken seriously by the government.
First, a proper law is needed that protects the potential victims of forced conversions. The Ministry of Human Rights should set up a group of experts to prepare the forced conversions bill in the light of recommendations of the committee that can be presented in the House as a joint draft of the Treasury and the Opposition.
Second, personal laws for minorities to govern private matters including marriage, divorce, custody, maintenance and inheritance should be updated.
Third, state and government personnel (judges, police, medical officers etc.) involved during the reporting, investigation and prosecution of forced conversion cases should be sensitized and held accountable on the issue.
Fourth, special safeguards are needed for victimized women. Their protection, privacy, confidentiality, restitution, trauma healing, rehabilitation and fair legal participation is required. There must be pro bono legal facilities and expedited procedures before, during and post-trial.
Last, to keep up with advances on the legislative front, it is essential that an awareness campaign should be launched to educate minority citizens about their fundamental rights and freedoms. The general public should be aware of the punitive laws pertaining to forced faith conversions and related crimes. Educating the masses should also be a priority because it is the responsibility of all citizens to speak against injustice.