Pakistan, a country whose founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had often paid utmost importance to minorities, has become home to forced conversions and marriages. Every year, several hundred young Christian and Hindu girls are forcibly converted to Islam and sometimes married off too. The increasing radicalization in the country is making life harder and harder for the 10% non-Muslims living in it. they have no or very less recourse in the face of violence.
A 13-year-old Christian girl Arzoo was abducted from outside her home by a 44-year-old Muslim Ali Azhar who later married her forcefully. He also forced her to convert to Islam before marrying her out of her will. Protests have erupted across major cities of Pakistan seeking justice for the girl. On 28th October 2020, the Archbishop of Karachi Cardinal Joseph Coutts called on Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and civil society representatives to record their protest at this heinous crime.
They raised their voices against the abduction and brutal forced marriage of an innocent 13-year-old girl by an old Muslim. They asked for justice with a due process from Sindh government authorities, police and judiciary. At the same time, the archbishop Joseph Coutts strictly condemned the insensitivity of French president towards Holy Prophet’s caricatures being displayed publicly by Charlie Hebdo. The minorities which are so concerned and respectful towards Islam are being subjected to injustices and forced conversions in the so-called Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
On the same day, protests took place in Quetta, Karachi, Hyderabad as well as Lahore. The Lahore protest was led by a well-known philanthropist who asked for the case to be led and decided on the basis of justice and not religion. Whereas in Hyderabad, the Society for Human Awareness, Development and Empowerment, the National Minority Rights Network and the National Commission for Justice and Peace peacefully protested against the incident.
The parents of the 13-year-old girl have teamed up with a Catholic charity in their efforts to win their girl back from the kidnapper. The Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) will be providing legal and paralegal support to the parents of Arzoo in their case. Arzoo’s parents even had to lose their jobs after her kidnapping because of the constant threats from her kidnapper.
The Movement for Solidarity and Peace calculates that annually up to 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls aged between 12 and 25 are abducted by Muslim men, forcibly married and converted in Pakistan. Over the years, the laws related to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan have transferred from being neutral to undisguised discrimination. These laws are as diverse as ranging from electoral laws, family laws, law on evidence, Hudood laws, redistribution of income through Zakat and Ushr, trust and evacuee property laws, domicile and nationality, to offences against religion.
However, the discrimination against women and girls belonging to religious minorities is much worse than the minor men. They have been the victims of rape, abduction, forced marriages and conversions. It is mostly the underage girls from religious minorities who are converting to Islam rapidly. The increasing rates of conversions in young non-Muslim girls speaks the bulk of vulnerability of the converts, and the motivation of those who are behind it.
The Sindh government has attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages twice under the Protection of Minorities Bill. In 2016, the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly but the orthodox religious groups objected to it. They went as far as to threaten the Assembly to besiege them if the bill was passed. So it was eventually put down. In 2019, a revised version of bill was proposed which was once again objected by the religious parties.
They reasoned the refusal based on their concept that the non-Muslims girls are not forced rather they get enticed by Islam and the Muslim men. This is where the contentious nature of forced conversions sprouts. The powerful Muslim men in Pakistan manipulate young girls into marrying them and converting from their religion. How can the law, in such cases, differentiate between coercion and peaceful persuasion, and can enticement without the use of violence be considered as punishable by law?
Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which clearly states that the right freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion solely on their own will. The fact that Pakistan’s default legal system is highly discriminatory particularly towards women from religious minorities. Then the clout and resources of the influential men preying upon these women imply coercion and it needs urgent positive legislation to safeguard the vulnerable women belonging to religious minorities and forced conversions.
These women who are forced to convert to Islam and them married off to the Muslim men cannot even meet their families afterwards. Their families are declared as Kafirs and it impedes their access to justice as they remain in the clutches of powerful men. The young girls who are forcibly converted and married are never approached or contacted by their families after they are kidnapped.
Pakistan has failed to comply with its international obligations to protect non-Muslim women and girls from exploitation by powerful groups and criminal elements. Even worse is the psychological impact on families of minorities who worry when their daughters venture out. The culture of intolerance which is celebrated by orthodox Muslim leaders aggravates the situation further. They consider these forced conversions and marriages as yet another victory for Islam. They celebrate this brutality as the nurturing of Muslim faith. Such behaviors intimidates as well provokes hatred among the religious minority families who have young girls in their households.
In times where Imran Khan has strictly condemned French President for hurting the sentiments of Muslims by supporting blasphemous content, the incidents like that of Arzoo come as an irony towards the ruling government’s policies. If Imran Khan is to come off as a true and a sincere leader, he will have to work on bringing justice to the affected family properly.