On Thursday, Sindh did Pakistan proud. The provincial assembly spoke with one voice, resoundingly and with conviction, for minority communities living in Sindh when it unanimously passed a law criminalising forced conversions.

Tabled last year by a PML-F lawmaker, Nand Kumar Goklani as a private bill, the Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act, 2015 stipulates a sentence of between five years and life imprisonment for those found guilty of forcible conversion, along with a fine to be paid to the victim.

Anyone who performs or facilitates the marriage of a victim of forced conversion is liable to a three-year prison term as well as a fine payable to the victim. Where forced conversion is alleged, the victims will be given 21 days by the court to arrive at an independent decision regarding their change of faith before action under this law is initiated. And a change of religion by minors will not be recognised until they reach the age of majority.

Although the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, the situation demanded the passage of such a law. Forced conversions have long been an unfortunate reality here, an inevitable consequence of the ideological narrative that has pervaded the public space over the past few decades.

In such an environment, it is difficult, even risky, to argue that compelling a person to change their faith through duress or pressure, whether physical, emotional or psychological, is immoral and unethical.

For the same reason, forced conversions are almost impossible to reverse: if victims assert their adherence to their original faith, it can attract accusations of apostasy and leave them vulnerable to religious vigilantism.

Human rights organisations estimate that around 1,000 women and young girls — largely from Hindu and Christian families, in Sindh and Punjab respectively — are forcibly converted every year after being kidnapped, and then married to Muslims, often the abductors themselves.

While it is admittedly not always easy to determine if a conversion is forced or whether the individual has taken the step of their own volition, a law such as the one recently passed addresses the circumstances in which forced conversions usually happen and ends the impunity with which the perpetrators practise it. Unlike many other laws that address social ills, it should also be comparatively easier to implement.

However, this progressive legislation will almost certainly draw the ire of self-appointed guardians of the faith, the same lobby that creates an intimidating atmosphere in courtrooms where families of women and young girls allegedly converted by force seek justice for their loved ones.

Not only should the lawmakers hold their ground, but other provinces should follow suit. By signalling so decisively to the nation that coercion in matters of faith is unacceptable, Sindh has laid down a framework that can enable us to be a better people.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2016

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