OVER the years, the laws applicable to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan have shifted from being neutral to blatantly discriminatory — from electoral laws, family laws, law on evidence, Hudood laws, redistribution of income through Zakat and Ushr, trust and evacuee property laws, domicile and nationality, to offences against religion.
The discrimination against women belonging to religious minority groups is worse; they become victims of rape, abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion. That it is largely underage girls who are ‘converting’ to Islam speaks volumes of the vulnerability of the converts, and the motivation of those behind the conversion.
Twice the Sindh government attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages, including laying guidelines for the court process in the Protection of Minorities Bill, placing an age limit of 18 years upon conversions and enabling better due process. In 2016, the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly, but religious parties objected to an age limit for conversions, and threatened to besiege the assembly if the bill received approval of the governor, who then refused to sign the bill into law.
In 2019, a revised version was introduced, but religious parties protested once again. A sit-in was organised by Pir Mian Abdul Khaliq (Mian Mithu), a political and religious leader and a central character in many cases of forced conversions of underage Hindu girls in Sindh. He and his group claim the girls are not forced, but fall in love with Muslim men and convert willingly. In March 2019, nearly 2,000 Hindus staged a sit-in to demand justice for two sisters, Reena and Raveena, who they claimed were forcibly converted and married. The Islamabad High Court ruled the girls had willingly converted and married the men. Herein lies the contention. While there are a large number of cases of forced conversions and marriages, there are also cases where vulnerable young women are preyed upon by influential men who entice them to convert and marry. To what extent can the law differentiate coercion from peaceful persuasion, and could enticement without the threat of violence become punishable?
It is largely underage girls who are ‘converting’.
Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion. The European Court of Human Rights has given some guidance regarding the distinction between permissible religious persuasion, on the one hand, and coercion on the other.
According to case law, exploiting a position of power to entice vulnerable people or subordinates to convert amounts to coercion, which should be outlawed. The fact that the default legal system in Pakistan is discriminatory, particularly towards women from religious minorities, coupled with the clout and resources of those preying upon them, implies coercion and urgently requires positive legislation to safeguard vulnerable citizens.
Further, once the women convert, there is no going back, as apostasy would mean a death sentence. In many cases, women are also told that their families are ‘kafirs’ and they cannot meet them. This impedes their access to justice as they remain in the clutches of powerful men. No one hears from these women directly after they ‘elope’. Reena and Raveena’s parents are right to question why they suddenly decided to marry men who already had wives and children.
The Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice compiled the data of 156 incidents of forced conversions which took place between 2013 and 2019. A vast majority of the girls are minors, with numerous cases of girls as young as 12 years old. Religious groups oppose a minimum age for conversion or marriage on the basis that this is not sanctioned by Islam. Since Sindh has outlawed the marriage of girls under 18, underage girls are taken to Punjab in some cases, where they are married.
Sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape and carries a death sentence, or a minimum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. There is no defence. Yet in some cases, the production of a conversion certificate and a nikahnama influences law enforcement to pardon the abductors.
Pakistan has failed to comply with its international obligations to protect non-Muslim women and girls from exploitation by powerful groups and criminal elements. Even worse is the psychological impact on families of minorities who worry when their daughters venture out, and the culture of intolerance that is promoted when leaders like Mian Mithu celebrate another ‘conversion’ and marriage as a victory for the Muslim faith in the local community. It sends a chilling message to our most vulnerable people — that their girls are not safe.
The writer is a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales.