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Photo Source: The Express Tribune

Pakistan Reader# 112, 16 June 2020

Forced Conversions and Marriages in Pakistan

The case beyond Reena and Raveena

The numbers in Sindh I Access to Justice I Failed Legislations I Socio-Economic Conditions of the Hindus in Sindh I The Conversion Mafia I Religious Parties & the Politics of Conversion I Ineffective Social Media

D. Suba Chandran, Lakshmi V Menon & Abigail Miriam Fernandez

I
IN THE NEWS

During the first week of June, there were news reports in the media on two Hindu girls who got converted into Islam, getting reconciled with their families. (“Family reconciles with converted girls from Ghotki,” The News, 6 June 2020; “Hindu sisters who married Muslim men reconcile with families,” The Express Tribune, 5 June 2020).
 
In March 2019, Reena and Raveena, two sisters from Ghotki in Sindh made news, when they disappeared on the day of Holi. Their father and brother complained to the police; the sisters came to the news, when they announced their marriage to two men from Punjab, after their conversion to Islam. The family, however, complained that the two girls were abducted, forcibly married and converted. 
 
The Islamabad High Court inquired the case. The Chief Justice Minallah in March 2019, appointed Shireen Mazari (Minister for Human Rights), Khawar Mumtaz (National Commission on the Status of Women chairperson), and IA Rehman (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan) as amici curiae to help the court in the case. (“IHC sends Ghotki sisters to shelter home,” Dawn, 27 March 2019). The Court also remanded them to a shelter house. 
 
In April 2019, the Islamabad High Court, based on a report submitted by the interior secretary, announced that the two girls converted to Islam voluntarily; it also announced that the two girls are adults and can live with their husbands. The report submitted by the interior secretary was based on a commission (comprising of Shireen Mazari, Mufti Taqi Usmani, Mehdi Hasan, Khawar Mumtaz, and IA Rehman). According to the Commission, “There was no forced conversion but it was a facilitated conversion through an existing institutional framework that allowed for the conversion, subsequent nikah and the safe passage to Islamabad of the two couples which included a two-day stay in Lahore at a doctor’s house who the girls said was a friend of Mian Sahab.” (“No coercion in adult Ghotki girls conversion, rules IHC,” Dawn, 12 April 2019.)
 
Today, Reena and Raveena are renamed as Nadia and Aasiya. Both are second wives to the men to whom they were married to. The Express Tribune, referring to a report by the Sindh government report says “both the men had failed to mention their first marriages in their nikahnamas. What’s more, the first wives of Barkat Ali and Safdar Ali, in their official statements, expressed ‘serious concern’ over second marriages of their husbands without their consent, which is a legal requirement as per the law.” (“Hindu sisters who married Muslim men reconcile with families,” The Express Tribune, 5 June 2020).
Today, the story of Reena and Raveena may look settle. But, the issue of forced marriage is not. The field report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan titled “Forced Conversions in Ghotki?” presents the larger issues facing the minority Hindu community. 

According to Amarnath Motumal, an advocate and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “As many as 20 to 25 girls from the Hindu community are abducted every month and converted forcibly.” (“Pakistan: 25 Hindu Girls Abducted Every Month; Forcibly Converted To Islam”). His statement explains the problem: “The families of the victims are scared to register cases against the influential perpetrators as death threats are issued to them in case, they raise their voice. So, the victims choose to remain silent to save their lives…Almost 90 per cent of the Hindu community comprise poor and impoverished families whose needs and rights have been neglected by the ones at the helms of power.”
 

II
ISSUES AT LARGE

Increasing attention in the media on conversions and forced marriages, but remain ineffective in the long run
During the recent years, there has been an increased awareness and a public debate within Pakistan over both the issues – forced conversions and forced marriages involving not only the Hindu community but also the other minority group – Christian.
 
Today, participants belonging to various faiths and religions gather and shout slogans against the issue. (Zia Ur Rehman, “Bill against forced conversions be resurrected and passed, demand civil society groups,” The News International, 24 March 2019). A section within the Hindu Community in Pakistan is also bringing the issue to the fore. (Shazia Hasan, “Protest against ‘forced’ conversion of Hindu girls,” Dawn, 25 March 2019)
 
These protests result in increased awareness inside the country, bring international attention, and underline the promises that PM Imran Khan made to the minorities of the country. These demonstrations have gone viral. (“Activists seek prevention of forced conversion, justice for victims,” Dawn, 19 December 2019) 
 
The protesters demand that the federal and provincial governments resurrect and pass the bill criminalising forced religious conversions and subsequently forced marriages, especially in Sindh. 
 
However, these efforts by civil society remain ineffective. They continue to be stopped by the powerful religious right. (Tilak Devasher “Making minorities insecure,” The Tribune, 10 February 2020). Without active government support, the issue is unlikely to get addressed.
 
Judicial Activism, Access to Justice & Impartial Investigation
The second issue is the ineffectiveness of judicial activism that one could see in other areas. Despite recent judicial activism, the issue is unlikely to get addressed at the ground level, especially in Sindh, due to access to justice by the socially and economically backward minority communities. 
 
In most cases, victims of forced conversions do not receive the required protection from state institutions and lack access to justice. The girl/woman involved is usually left in the custody of her kidnapper and throughout the trial she is subject to further threats, forcing her to deny abduction, rape, and claims that the conversion was not forceful. 
 
Also, women are prohibited to meet their families because they are nonbelievers and thus no one usually hears from these women. Not only for the minorities, but access to justice for women in Pakistan also has a long and chequered past, which continues to influence present-day attempts of change. This stems from the interplay between various social, cultural, structure, and legal complexities, that must be understood from a larger perspective of the judicial system. (Sarah Zaman and Maliha Zia, “Women’s Access to Justice in Pakistan,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights)
 
Often there is no investigation carried out to look into the circumstance in which the conversion took place or the age of the victim, a mere certificate is often taken as enough proof. In many cases, critical matters such as birth certificates and victims’ statements are overlooked by the judges. Further, given the lack of legislation to address the matter of forced conversions, the court is also left short-handed in their interpretation of the law to address this issue. (“Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan,” University of Birmingham)
 
Failure of the Federal and Provincial governments to enact legislation on conversions, and child marriage
Both federal and provincial governments have failed the minority communities, to provide them with adequate legal backing, in terms of legislation. (Veengas, “In Pakistan's Sindh, Authorities Do Little to Stop Forced Conversions of Minor Hindu Girls,” The Wire, 23 January 2020) 
 
The National Assembly enacted the Hindu Marriage Act, 2017, which applies to all the provinces except Sindh, however, a loophole in the law such as Hindu marriage can be terminated because the other party “has ceased to be Hindu by conversion to another religion” gives much freedom for forced conversions to take place. The federal government has also failed on preventing child marriage; in most cases of forces conversion, the minimum age for marriage varies across regions, thus the lack of uniformity. (Saba Imtiaz, “Hindu Today, Muslim Tomorrow,” The Atlantic, 14 August 2017)
 
Particularly in Sindh, which is home to the majority of the Hindu population, lack of adequate legislation remains the primary issue. The Sindh government in 2013 set up a committee to consider legislation to stop forced conversions and bring out a bill to address this issue. Subsequently, a bill was formulated and it laid down specific institutions that would be responsible for preventing forced conversions as well as laid down legal guidelines that would protect the integrity of the court process and enable victims to access justice. Further, it also placed an age limit upon conversions to support existing legislation on age limits for legitimate marriages. In November 2016, the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Provisional Assembly, however, the bill failed to be converted into law as it faced instant criticism and was blocked by several Islamist groups and parties as being anti-Islam. (“Forced conversions,” Dawn, 26 November 2016) 
 
In 2019, a revised version was introduced, but religious parties protested once again. Since then this law has remained in limbo with religious parties showing no signs of withdrawing their opposition to the bill. Thus, the absence of a law explicitly banning forced conversions has left a gap for forced conversion to thrive in Pakistan. (Sulema Jahangir, “Forced conversions,” Dawn, 12 April 2020)
 
The question of age, child marriage and the resistance from the Right on religious ground
Calls against child marriage and forced conversions face strong opposition from the religious Right. Legislations on forced conversion and child marriage are deemed “un-Islamic” as the laws set an age limit for embracing Islam and marriage. Instances from the Quran and Hadiths such as Prophet Muhammed’s marriage to six-year-old Aisha and conversion of Hazrat Ali (the fourth Caliph) at the age of nine are cited as explanations and justifications by the Islamist resistance. The Centre for Social Justice and the Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights compiled 156 incidents of forced conversions between 2013-19; the majority were girls as young as 12 years of age. (“Forced conversions,” Dawn, 12 April 2020)
 
On the above-ground, legislations in 2016 and 2019 curtailing forced conversions were shot down. These bills set the minimum age requirement for conversion at 18, jail terms for coercion, and mandated a 21-day safe house period to ensure conversion was out of free will. In October 2019, when the Provincial Assembly of Sindh rejected ‘the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill’ that criminalized forced conversions, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faced widespread criticism. It was said that religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology influenced Sindh’s decision. (“Pakistan: Sindh Province Rejects Bill Against Forced Conversions,” Library of Congress, 15 November 2019) The self-proclaimed “liberal” PPP is also doing little to distance itself from Islamist restraints and individuals facilitating forced conversions in Sindh.
 
Contrastingly, laws strongly restrict any individual from leaving the Islamic religion. Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority’s registration policy, under the ‘Religion Change’ clause says: 'Once declaration/undertaking of being Muslim has been made… modification in Religion from Islam… shall not be allowed.' (“Pakistan’s forced conversions shame Imran Khan,” The Spectator, 11 June 2020) (“In Pakistan's Sindh, Authorities Do Little to Stop Forced Conversions of Minor Hindu Girls,” The Wire, 23 January 2020) (“In Pakistan, the problem of forced conversions,” The Hindu, 13 April 2019)
 
The religious clout sways Pakistan’s vote banks. Mullahs and Uleimahs have a huge influence on the larger population and hence the elections. (“Pakistan MP moves Bills on forced conversion,” The Hindu, 27 March 2019)
 
The Conversion Mafia: The World of Mian Mithu
Reports of forced conversions following abductions are high in Sindh’s rural regions. Clerics like Samaro’s Ayub Jan Sarhandi and Ghotki’s Mian Mitho are veritable symbols of Sindh’s conversion story. (“Hindu Today, Muslim Tomorrow,” The Atlantic, 14 August 2017)
 
Mian is the extremist cleric Hindu family's dread. Mian Mithu, the Pir of Bharchundi Sharif, claims that “in the past 200 years, not a single Hindu has been converted to Islam forcibly. All those men, women, girls, and boys, whether they belong to the Hindu community or any other community, come to us to change their religion out of their own choice,” he says. He maintains that he only facilitates the conversion and helps the couple sustain themselves; which he points out is no crime. (“Mian Mithu claims innocence in Ghotki violence case,” The News International, 9 October 2019) (“Mian Mithu, the extremist cleric whom Hindu families dread in Pakistan’s Sindh,” The Print, 17 September 2019)
 
The Conversion mafia’s modus-operandi is fool proof. First, the non-Muslim minor girls mysteriously disappear/elope from their houses. Later, they are discovered married with a Muslim identity. In an abduction case of a 16-year old Hindu girl, who was raped for three months before being presented in court, the girl told the court she was threatened to say that she voluntarily converted to Islam and married her rapist and abductor (Abdul). However, the girl maintained that she was raped and abducted and said she wished to live with her parents.

What is disturbing is the recurring storyline. Why don’t mature women convert? Why only young girls and those of marriageable age? The story and narrative remain identical. A young girl elopes with a Muslim man, converts to Islam, and refuses to have anything to do with her family, who are forced to remain quiet. (“The Strange Case of the Silent Women,” Dawn, 10 November 2019)
  
The problem in Sindh: The social and economic background of the victims and their families
What makes Hindus from rural Sindh most vulnerable? First, the stark socio-economic disparity resulting in economic servitude. (“Forced conversions,” Dawn, 31 March 2019, “The truth about forced conversions in Thar,” Dawn, 17 August 2017) 
 
Interestingly, this is not the case in the province of Balochistan where Hindus are affluent, tribal chiefs consider non-Muslims a part of their family, the clergy do not have a missionary zeal, and Hindu worship places are proportionate to their population.
 
Most of the victims of forced conversions hail from socially backward families. Particularly in interior Sindh where the issue is more rampant, the Hindu community in this region where most of them work as agro-based bonded labour and thus are financially deprived and often are dependent on those who control the means of production, thus making them vulnerable. (Akhlaq Ullah Tarar, “Forced conversions,” Dawn, 31 March 2020) Further, the levels of deprivation are so high in this area that the people who belong to the scheduled castes are so powerless that the families see it futile to report forced conversions to the police. Thus, most cases go unreported. (Naziha Syed Ali, “The truth about forced conversions in Thar,” Dawn, 17 August 2017)
 
Further, the women and children in these societies have no access to education, health, or other basic facilities and are often left out in the open working or playing, visible to everyone and anyone. Often poor Hindu girls look at conversions as a means to a better life, this mentality has played a role in young girls being lured into these forced conversions for marriage. (Naeem Sahoutara and Ali Ousat, “The Strange Case of the Silent Women,” Dawn, 10 November 2019)
 
#stopforcedconversions: The Social Media on forced conversions and their effectiveness
During recent years, social media is active. Numerous emotionally charged tweets with popular viral hashtags including the following: #stopforcedconversions and #Sindhrejectsforcedconversions. While they create awareness amongst the Twitterati, at the ground level, it is the social and economic background of the minority communities and their access to education and justice that decides. As a result, the debate in social media continues in the urban areas, whereas the problem remains in the rural Sindh.
 
Finally, one has to understand, the religious right and those with extreme views against the minorities also have access to social media. There is a counter debate, which is also equally popular within Pakistan.