A protest against forced conversions in Lahore, March 2019 | WhiteStar
A protest against forced conversions in Lahore, March 2019 | WhiteStar

The 13-year-old Christian girl Arzoo Raja’s case sheds a stark light on the issues of forced conversions and child marriages in Pakistan. It became one of the biggest stories of 2020, exposing gaps in the system that allow for these ugly practices to continue in our society.

Arzoo’s was just the latest name in the list of young Christian and Hindu girls who have faced such an ordeal. In fact, even while every development in the Arzoo case was receiving media attention, another forced conversion case was also being heard by the Sindh High Court, without similar extensive reporting. This was the case of Neha Pervaiz, who was abducted from Karachi’s Ittehad Town on April 28, 2019.

In October, the local court took notice of Neha’s case and issued bailable arrest warrants for cleric Qazi Mufti Ahmed Jaan Raheemi, who had allegedly performed the marriage, the husband Muhammad Imran, and his relatives Muhammad Rehan Baloch, Sundus and Azra. The judge observed that the statements of the witnesses supported the complainant’s position, and noted that the victim was underage and was not willing in the nikkah. The judge further noted that the marriage was solemnised without Neha’s consent, and under pressure, coercion and influence.

The harrowing cases of these underage girls are bitter reminders of why religious minorities continue to feel unsafe in Pakistan.

Harrowing cases of the conversion and marriage of underage girls are bitter reminders of why religious minorities continue to feel unsafe in Pakistan

WHY FORCED CONVERSION CONTINUES TO BE AN ISSUE

The issue of forced conversion takes multiple shapes and forms. Arguably, the practice continues, relatively unchecked, because the abductors are from the majority population and enjoy easier access to power. This allows them to easily muzzle the voices of the girls’ families, who belong to religious minorities.

Clearly, there is a dire need to reframe the discourse around the issue. Not only are there attempts to muzzle the voices from the minority communities, but also of individuals and organisations trying to highlight these problems.

Protestors demand an end to discrimination against Pakistan’s religious minorities | Reuters
Protestors demand an end to discrimination against Pakistan’s religious minorities | Reuters

An example is a recently published study conducted by Ghulam Hussain, an anthropologist at the Institute of Policy Studies, that looks at forced conversion and supposedly seeks to differentiate between the ‘reality’ and ‘rhetoric’. The study concludes that, “the ‘forced’ conversions narrative has been developed, promoted and propagated without any justifiable basis and is working towards the Islamophobic political goal of maligning the state and society of Pakistan and more particularly the religion and the religious characters in it…”

Similarly, during a recent press conference, Anwarul Haq Kakar, the head of the parliamentary committee on forced religious conversions, said that most cases of forced conversions “have some degree of willingness on the part of the girl.” When asked about the definition of forced conversions, Senator Kakar said that 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.

In October, the local court took notice of Neha’s case and issued bailable arrest warrants for cleric Qazi Mufti Ahmed Jaan Raheemi, who had allegedly performed the marriage, the husband Muhammad Imran, and his relatives Muhammad Rehan Baloch, Sundus and Azra.

Statements of consent obtained from the girls are often cited as evidence of their willingness to remain married. The girls’ ages, and the circumstances under which this ‘consent’ is obtained, seem not to matter.

Early this year, Mehek Kumari, a 15-year-old Hindu girl from Larkana, retracted her old statement, wherein she had said that she had married her husband of her own free will and wanted to stay with him. In February, she told the court that she wanted to go back to her parents.

By then, the case had already become a rallying point for Muslim religious parties. These parties held a press conference in Larkana and warned the authorities of serious consequences if the girl were sent back to her parents. Despite the threats, the court decided in favour of the girl and allowed her to go with her parents.

AGE OF CONSENT

Matters related to consent and age are not simple in Pakistan.

In 2014, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) declared laws related to having a minimum age of marriage “un-Islamic”. Individuals of any age could get married if they had attained puberty, the council had said. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had expressed concerns on this ruling.

Five years later, the Sindh Assembly passed the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years, and imposed imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of at least 100,000 rupees, or both, for an underage marriage. In other parts of the country, the minimum age is set at 16 years.

Nonetheless, proof of age can be easily falsified, as we have seen time and again. If we want forced conversions to become a thing of the past, the legal system and government machinery will have to take more stringent measures. There is also a clear need for the media, politicians, thought leaders and academics to meaningfully engage with the issues, rather than trying to discredit the already disenfranchised. Otherwise the list of (reported) young girls who have been forcefully converted and married will continue to grow longer, year after year.

The writer is a freelance journalist and researcher

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 27th, 2020

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