By Our Staff Reporter
Islamabad: On August 11, 2021, a dozens of human rights activists rallied in Islamabad against the forced conversion of minority girls, often as a precursor to marriage.
The activists marched from Islamabad National Press Club toward the parliament and held banners and chanted slogans seeking government action to stop such conversions to Pakistan’s official religion, Islam. The Minorities’ Alliance Pakistan, a political party established in 2002, organized the protest which was covered by a large number of local and International media houses and news channels.
Interestingly, some of the demonstrators held images of Shahbaz Bhatti, the party’s founder, who served as minority affairs minister from 2008 until his assassination in 2011. Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad after campaigning against Pakistan’s widely criticized blasphemy laws.
Nearly 97 percent of Pakistan’s population of around 220 million people are Sunni or Shi’ite Muslim, but there are small Hindu and Christian communities which keep highlighting conversion of their girls. Critics cite the routine targeting of young women from Pakistan’s Hindu minority for simultaneous conversion to Islam and marriage to Muslim men — often under alleged coercion.
Pakistan has reported a record rise in forced conversion cases of minority girls, according to data from two Lahore-based organizations.
As many as 36 underage non-Muslim girls were allegedly kidnapped and converted to Islam as of mid-October this year, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) said. These include 21 Christian and 15 Hindu girls. Faisalabad city in Punjab province has the most affected Christian families.
“Thirteen cases were reported in 2020. Hence, the cases of forced conversion have increased 177 percent from last year,” the People’s Commission for Minorities’ Rights (PCMR) and CSJ stated last month in an Oct. 16 press release.
Also, A US based International publication , Forbes, has reported quoting the Human rights organizations estimates that every year 1,000 such girls are forcibly converted to Islam. This estimate could be even higher than 1,000 as many cases remain unreported. The 2020 US media report also estimates the number of forcibly converted girls to be around 1,000 per year.
Sulema Jahangir, a board member, AGHS Legal Aid Cell, an advocate of the high courts, Pakistan, and a solicitor of the senior courts of England and Wales believes the laws applicable to the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan have shifted from being neutral to blatantly discriminatory — 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.The discrimination against women belonging to religious minority groups is worse; they become victims of rape, abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion.
“That it is largely underage girls who are ‘converting’ to Islam speaks volumes of the vulnerability of the converts, and the motivation of those behind the conversion,” Sulema wrote in a column published in Dawn.
The discrimination against women belonging to religious minority groups is worse; they become victims of rape, abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion. That it is largely underage girls who are ‘converting’ to Islam speaks volumes of the vulnerability of the converts, and the motivation of those behind the conversion.Sulema Jahangir
Twice the Sindh government attempted to outlaw forced conversions and marriages, including laying guidelines for the court process in the Protection of Minorities Bill, placing an age limit of 18 years upon conversions and enabling better due process. In 2016, the bill was unanimously passed by the Sindh Assembly, but religious parties objected to an age limit for conversions, and threatened to besiege the assembly if the bill received approval of the governor, who then refused to sign the bill into law.
Dawn , an influential English Daily reported that in 2019, a revised version was introduced, but religious parties protested once again. A sit-in was organised by Pir Mian Abdul Khaliq (Mian Mithu), a political and religious leader and a central character in many cases of forced conversions of underage Hindu girls in Sindh. He and his group claim the girls are not forced, but fall in love with Muslim men and convert willingly. In March 2019, nearly 2,000 Hindus staged a sit-in to demand justice for two sisters, Reena and Raveena, who they claimed were forcibly converted and married. The Islamabad High Court ruled the girls had willingly converted and married the men. Herein lies the contention. While there are a large number of cases of forced conversions and marriages, there are also cases where vulnerable young women are preyed upon by influential men who entice them to convert and marry. To what extent can the law differentiate coercion from peaceful persuasion, and could enticement without the threat of violence become punishable?
It is wort noting that , the Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights and the Centre for Social Justice compiled the data of 156 incidents of forced conversions which took place between 2013 and 2019. A vast majority of the girls are minors, with numerous cases of girls as young as 12 years old. Religious groups oppose a minimum age for conversion or marriage on the basis that this is not sanctioned by Islam. Since Sindh has outlawed the marriage of girls under 18, underage girls are taken to Punjab in some cases, where they are married.
However, it is