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Minorities marriage bills run into disagreements

January 19, 2012

ISLAMABAD, Jan 18: As bills are drafted and taken up in the assembly to grant legal rights to minorities, disagreements are emerging within the minority communities as they negotiate the line between their religious beliefs and civil law.

What's in the bills? The National Commission for the Status of Women (NCSW) has become the unexpected champion to take the lead on drafting three bills to make the Pakistani legal framework more inclusive of minorities.

The proposed bills are the Hindu Marriages Registration Bill, Christian Marriage (Amendment) Bill and Christian Divorce (Amendment) Bill. The NCSW has also reviewed and given substantial input on the pending Hindu Marriage Bill 2011 that has already been introduced in the assembly.

These bills seek to bring the areas ofChristian and Hindu marriages and divorces under the jurisdiction of the state.

A senior advocate and activist, Naeem Shakir, who helped NCSW reach the most appropriate terms of the draft, explained: 'The old legislations had not been touched by the state or the church for a century and a quarter. They were oppressive, obsolete and discriminatory, especially towards women. This created several problems for Christians in getting basic documentation.'Similarly, there was simply no legislation institutionalising Hindu marriage. This meant that there was no legal way for a Hindu or Christian couple to prove their marriage or get documentation which had proof of marriage as a prerequisite.

'Imagine going somewhere and trying to get a room in a hotel with your husband or wife. But when asked to show proof of marriage, you have nothing and you are embarrassed and not given a room. Same for trying to get an identitycard when a woman changes her name after marriage, or getting a passport or any such documentation,' explained Chairman Scheduled Caste Rights Movement (SCRM), Ramesh Jaipal.

As far as the state is concerned, Hindu marriage does not exist. However, Justice Kailash Kohali, anther consultant on the bills, pointed out: 'Nadra ordinance of 2000 made registration of marriages a necessary prerequisite for making ID cards indicating the new marital status.

Following this guideline, the proposed bills make registration of marriages of Hindus and Christians the responsibility of the state.

For Hindus, the draft bill will regularise marriages of Hindu couples through enabling their registration with the government.

The Christian Marriage Bill 'shifts the responsibility of registration of marriage to the state from the previous system where state certified ministers of reli-gion registered marriages,' explained Mr Shakir. Now, the church will only be solemnising the marriage and the state will be responsible for registration.

Controversy: According to NCSW, the proposed bill has been drafted after several surveys and consultations both with the Christian and Hindu communities to ensure that their religious beliefs are not violated.

However, the matter is not simply of introducing some laws to enable official registration of marriages. When divorce enters the picture, religious sensibilities are offended.

Mr Jaipal said many Hindus were dead set against the current bill that has already been introduced in the National Assembly because of its divorce clause.

Hinduism does not accept the idea of divorce and now a vocal Hindu section of society is expressing its discontent against any such legislation.

However, Riffat Butt of NCSW statedthat in their various focus studies with the Hindu community, the dominant opinion recognised the need for a legal way to obtain separation or divorce. 'If a relationship is not good, then what can you do? The ability to dissolve a marriage is a basic need of society,' stated Justice Kohali.

ActionAid highlighting the issue on its website explains that since Hindu women have no documentation to prove their marriage, once a separation happens, they cannot legally claim anything from their husbands.

'Due to an absence of NIC and marriage registration mechanism, scheduled caste Hindu women do not get any share in their husbands' property, and their access to health facilities and participation in social, economic and political processes is also minimal,' stated the website.

Similar is the issue with divorce in Christianity. In the current form, Ms Riffat Butt explained, the law only allowsdivorce if adultery is proven which is practically impossible. The drafted bill, however, adds clauses to make divorce an achievable possibility under civil law when required.

Even though Christianity has a stern attitude towards divorce, the drafting of the bill has occurred after consultations and taking input from all the major Churches as well as figures of authority in the Christian community. 'Yes there was criticism but consensus prevailed, and new grounds in addition to adultery were added in the bill for the dissolution of marriage,' explained Mr Shakir.

As the bills are reviewed by the Ministry of Human Rights and preparation is made to present them to the National Assembly, a discussion is also to be expected within the Christian and Hindu communities. In the coming years, they will have to answer fundamental questions about combining their religious beliefs with their legal rights.