ISLAMABAD: The head of the parliamentary committee on forced religious conversions said on Monday that most cases of forced conversion “have some degree of willingness on the part of the girl.”
Senator Anwarul Haq Kakar was speaking to the press alongside committee member MNA Lal Chand Malhi and civil society activist from Tharparkar Krishan Sharma, following a recent visit by the committee to parts of Sindh where forced conversions of young Hindu girls have been reported.
The committee has said that the state has not fulfilled its responsibility to protect religious minorities from forced conversions.
When asked about the definition of forced conversions, Senator Kakar told Dawn there are several definitions of forced conversion, and the subject was debated by the committee at length.
“Although conversion to seek a better lifestyle is also considered forced conversion, economic reasons can be considered exploitation and not force, as eventually it is after consent,” he said.
Head of Senate body says most cases ‘have some degree of willingness’
He added that there was a thin line between consent and exploitation, and went on to say that the conversion of Hindu girls in Sindh could not be considered forced.
“The committee, which included members from other religious as well, did not find any trace of kidnapping and illegal confinement of Hindu girls who later came to give statements in court,” he said.
During the committee’s visit, members held public meetings in Sukkur and Mirpur Mathelo in Ghotki district, as well as a meeting with senior officials in the Sindh government in Karachi. Meetings were held with the families of victims of forced conversions, officials and accused groups.
Mr Malhi said that around 200 members of the Hindu community participated in a public meeting in Sukkur while around 800 people attended the meeting in Mirpur Mathelo.
Senator Kakar also said that people who “encourage girls from the Hindu community to move out and marry according to their own wishes are not as liberal about their own daughters.” He said people facilitate the elopement of girls and boys and then present the girls as converts in court.
He said the worst part of the situation was that the family’s “pain and shame” were not taken into consideration.
“If we all start taking the families into confidence and devise a mechanism to console them, the cases of forced conversions will decline,” he said.
Senator Kakar claimed there were no forced conversions, saying that most incidents began with willingness in the form of chats or some other form of communication.
”What we observed is that the majority of girls and boys had secretly decided to elope and marry,” he said, adding: “But that was because the family of the two would not accept them as life partners.”
Mr Malhi said the problem was the established role of some powers that facilitated such couples to run away and presented them in court under their custody.
He said: “Those who run away from their homes should be provided state protection for some time so that the girl may finalise her decision.”
Senator Kakar suggested introducing a new marriage rule that includes the mandatory presence of a vali at the time of marriage and the establishment of shelters managed by the district administration to house underage girls who wanted to get married, in order to clear the confusion between force and consent.
The most vulnerable districts for forced conversions are Sanghar, Ghotki, Sukkur, Khairpur and Mirpurkhas. There have been negligible reported cases from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while a few cases involving Christians have been reported in Punjab.
Mr Malhi said that people such as Mian Mithu and Pir Sarhandi house girls and manage the system to keep the girl away from her family. He said there was no evidence that they were backed by an authority, political power or state organ.
Mr Sharma, an activist, said there are two kinds of forced conversions, the first involving kidnapping and illegal confinement, and a second kind.
“The second kind is rampant in Sindh and that has to be taken care of by the state – this is procedural forced conversions, [in which] the whole system of the country, from the police, the courts, etc, are violating the laws and facilitating such conversions,” he said.
“When the parents present a certificate that the age of the girl is below 18 years, the police usually do not attach this document in the FIR, but we have women protection laws in the country and we need to implement them. Besides that, Pakistan is signatory to several international obligations,” he said.
Mr Sharma said there has to be a law stating that the minimum age for religious conversion is 18, which is also the marriageable age in Sindh.
“The courts too should take note of marriages of girls below the age of 18 years,” he said.
He said that, as a civil rights activist, he believes there should be no role of religion in a marriage between two people.
“Marriage is a civil contract and it should be looked at separately from a religious issue, and people from two different religions can live together following their own faith,” he said.
Asked if there have been any cases of Hindu men converting to Islam, Senator Kakar said there have been several cases of young men converting for various reasons.
“We believe that converting due to any reason, including economic hardship, social pressure, etc, are all incorrect. But conversion with free will after proper understanding is justified,” he said.
He said there had been a case of a Hindu boy who converted to Islam to marry a Muslim girl he had known for some time. “This case was reported while we were holding a public hearing in Mirpur Mathelo,” he said.
Mr Sharma said that boys also face social pressure from their families and such conversion ceremonies are usually held in a local mosque or seminary, where they receive financial support.
The parliamentary committee will also meet with the Council of Islamic Ideology to discuss cases where a Hindu girl wishes to return to her family after expressing consent to a marriage with a Muslim in court.
Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2020