A question of faith

Published August 26, 2021

THE troubling issue of forced conversions continues to be viewed largely through a majoritarian lens. Such an approach will further demoralise and alienate non-Muslims in the country and lead Pakistan further adrift from its international obligations. On Monday, the Ministry of Religious Affairs held a meeting with several clerics and religious scholars to discuss the draft of a bill, prepared by the human rights ministry, to prohibit forced conversion. No non-Muslims were invited to participate, not even from the National Commission for Minorities; its sole Muslim member was included in the capacity of a local cleric. Non-Muslims are the primary stakeholders in this issue which has deeply personal ramifications for them: was it not critical to obtain their point of view in discussing it? By this exclusionary approach, members of the majority faith have been enabled to record their objections to the bill unchallenged and set down the parameters of the discourse.

While the discussion at the in-camera meeting has not been made public, the participants reportedly expressed strong reservations to several clauses of the draft, including the minimum age of conversion. The religious lobby’s opposition to the latter point in particular has twice derailed the Sindh government’s attempts to prohibit forced conversions. Non-Muslims, particularly Hindus in Sindh, have time and again protested against minor girls from their communities being abducted, forcibly converted and married to Muslim men. It is thus unsurprising that the religious lobby is so strenuously opposed to a minimum age for conversion, especially since the courts unfortunately often overlook underage marriages when the child brides are new converts. However, changing one’s faith is a serious decision with life-changes consequences. It must be taken after much deliberation and with informed consent. Aside from stipulating a minimum age of 18, the draft bill contains sensible clauses that prevent rushed decisions; it also mandates severe punishment for those perpetrating forced conversions. It is time the government and society did right by the beleaguered minority communities that call Pakistan home.

Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2021

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