Forced conversions

Published January 20, 2023

THE laments of Pakistani Hindu families losing one young girl after another to what they allege are forced conversions and marriage to Muslim men were bound to draw international attention at some point. Finally, that has come to pass. In a statement issued in Geneva on Monday, UN human rights experts expressed alarm over increasing reports of abductions, forced marriages and conversions of girls and young women in this country. They demanded immediate steps be taken to put an end to these depredations and ensure justice. The statement pointed out the institutional bias against the females placed in this predicament, with the police and judiciary often found extending support to the perpetrators instead of the victims.

The UN experts’ concern is not misplaced. Although the issues highlighted constitute multiple violations of both Pakistan’s domestic law and the country’s international obligations, the fact of conversion appears to trump all other concerns in an increasingly conservative society. Time and again — most commonly in Sindh which is home to a majority of Pakistani Hindus — newly converted minors, rather than being handed over to their families, have been ‘allowed’ to live with their often much older ‘husbands’, thereby putting them at heightened risk of domestic abuse and childbirth complications. The undeniable element of coercion present in a situation where vulnerable communities are pitted against powerful groups with a triumphalist mindset, is often conveniently ignored. Certainly, there may be some doubt as to whether all the conversions by adult women are forced. But it is worth asking why new converts are almost always young women, rather than older ones? Or males of any age, for that matter? Neither the government nor the criminal justice system appear to have the spine to address the issue for fear of angering the religious lobby. In 2016, the Sindh Assembly did pass a bill stipulating that any conversion by a minor would only come into effect when they reached the age of majority, ie 18 years; it also provided for severe penalties for perpetrators of forced conversions. However, in the face of an uproar by the religious right, including individuals notorious for forced conversions, the provincial government shamefully capitulated and prevailed upon the governor to not sign the bill into law. It is high time lawmakers protected weaker segments of society from exploitation in the name of faith.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2023

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