The judgment by the Court to allow the women to leave with their husbands was based on the evidence presented before the judges, and was rightfully decided with the current law on the books. While there is a constitutional right to freedom of religion in Pakistan, there are several contradictory laws that target minorities and there is an absence of laws protecting them from discrimination. Therefore, while we may never know if the women in this case were forcibly converted, the controversy requires one to assess the lack of legal and social protections afforded to Pakistan’s religious minorities.
While many have critiqued the Supreme Court for seemingly allowing the victims in this case to be returned to their captors, the judges are limited, as there are few laws on the record protecting religious minorities. Unlike its regional neighbors, India and Sri Lanka, there are no laws in operation protecting minorities from forced religious conversion in Pakistan. However, there is a delicate balance that nations must strike between protecting minorities from forced conversion and respecting a citizen’s religious right to change faiths.
Marc Galatner writes that “state inquiries into the imponderables of personal identity” such as determining whether an individual has voluntarily converted faiths, is impossible to accomplish with “administrative and judicial procedures ill-suited to the task.” While it is difficult to determine the voluntariness of conversion, one must understand the environment in which the decision is made. As such, Indian provincial legislation deals with all sorts of “coercion” to conversion.
In 2003, the Tamil Nadu province passed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance, which prohibited conversion through allurement, force, or fraudulent conduct. There was a higher criminal penalty assigned for those attempting to convert minors, women, and members of the Scheduled classes, because those individuals have historically been most vulnerable to forced conversion. Further, all conversions must be reported to a magistrate judge in the province, who examines the evidence and can deem a conversion forced and illegal.
Many critics argue that this gives too much power to magistrate judges, who stand as an ultimate decider of an individual’s faith. This could potentially lead to violations of a voluntary convert’s right to religion and privacy. However, the Indian Supreme Court examined the laws of conversion through their Stanislaus case, where the Court distinguished between a right to “transmit” ones religion and the right to “convert” individuals. The Court explained, “if a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike.”
Therefore, the Court in India has allowed individuals to spread the tenants and lessons of their religion, but not to forcibly or fraudulently convert individuals. However, many critics question the validity of the Court’s decision, especially when the central tenant of some faiths is to spread their religion. Asma Jahangir authored a report on “the elimination of religious intolerance” for the United Nations, and wrote, “[m]issionary activity cannot be considered a violation of the freedom of religion and belief of others if all involved parties are adults able to reason on their own.”
This issue became significant for Sri Lanka in 2005, when the government passed a national bill prohibiting unethical conversions, in order to “ward off threats to Buddhism.” While 70 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka is Buddhist, there is a minority Christian population that has long been targeted by authorities for its missionary / conversion activities. For critics, this law was a legalised oppression of the Christian minority’s right to proselytise, which is essential to their faith, in order to serve a chauvinistic principle of “protecting the majority.”
This is why the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka rejected the legislation, ruling it an unconstitutional violation of the religious freedoms. This example is an extreme on the spectrum of religious conversion laws as the majority utilised the legislative process to discriminate against a minority. Pakistan has similar laws that discriminate against Ahmedis, for example, that have not been ruled unconstitutional by its Supreme Court. However, it is the lack of legislation protecting minorities which has created a social vacuum worthy of examination.
When the decision by the Pakistani Supreme Court was released, a commentator on twitter noted that Rinkle Kumari, one of the three females in the case, was showing signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Neither the commentator nor I have the credentials to administer a psychological diagnosis to Ms. Kumari, now known as Faryal Bibi. However, let us think of the hundreds of other cases that have existed throughout Pakistan’s history where Hindus, Sikhs, or Christians were converted against their will.