PAKISTAN: Forced marriages and conversions stem from institutionalised intolerance

While religious diversity forms the bedrock of a civilized democratic state, the right to propagate and freely practice one’s religion is strictly restricted by Pakistan’s orthodox clergy, which is bent upon imposing its own version of the state religion. There is a growing concern within the country over the shrinking social space for minorities. Far from being treated as equal citizens of the state, Pakistan’s religious minority suffer discrimination and institutionalised injustice at the hands of the majority. Women belonging to religious minorities are doubly vulnerable, as they are converted and married forcibly by their kidnappers. There is no dearth of cases of forced conversion reported by the media, but the state has done practically nothing to end the practice.

According to the British Pakistan Christian Association (BPCA), a group working for religious freedom in the country, sisters Tahira (21) and Reema Bibi (20) were kidnapped near their home in Sargodha, Pakistan on 2 December 2015, while traveling home from work. The young women were abducted by two Muslim men, Muhammad Mustafa (29) and Muhammad Kashif (30). They were raped, forcibly married to their rapist, and kept captive at a house in Islamabad. On 11 February 2016, Tahira managed to escape. Upon an FIR filed by her husband Muhammud Kashif, police arrested six male members of Tahira’s family. Although the men were released after pressure from several humanitarian groups, the police have demanded that Tahira’s family return Tahira to her husband.

Also reported by the BPCA in February 2016, a Christian woman was captured and forced into Islamic marriage by her Muslim employer, for whom she worked as a bonded labourer. Since her escape, which was coordinated by smuggling a phone through another bonded labourer cleaning the same house, police have visited her parental home twice calling for her to be arrested or for a family member to be arrested in her place. Her elderly parents have chosen to remain in their home, but her siblings have been moved to safety in a BPCA home far away from the torturous village of Kasur, where Christians slave for Muslim landlords in brick kilns and where Shama and Shazad were burnt alive last year.

According to a report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, at least 1,000 Pakistani girls are forced into Muslim marriages and made to convert to Islam annually. The report found that forced marriages usually follow a similar pattern: girls between the ages of 12 and 25 are abducted, made to convert to Islam, and then married to the abductor or an associate. If a complaint is filed, then “girls are held in custody by the abductors and suffer all kinds of abuse and violence”. Even if the case is taken to court, the girls are threatened and pressurized by their husband and his family to declare that their conversion was voluntary. And so the case is closed. Victims are sexually abused, forced into prostitution, and suffer domestic abuse or even wind up in the human trafficking cycle. Such cases rarely end in the girls going back to their real families. From the moment the controversy begins, right up until the court hearing, the girls live with their kidnappers and suffer trauma and violence. These fragile girls are told that they “are now Muslims and that the punishment for apostasy is death”.

Many cases of forced conversions are not even reported, because Pakistan’s police and judiciary are often complicit in such crimes, and discourage minorities from taking legal action. The patterns of violence and discrimination through which the law and social attitudes become complicit in providing immunity for perpetrators, and injustice to victims, has largely become institutionalized in the country.

In November 2015, the Pakistani Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Council of Islamic Ideology proudly opposed a potential law on “forced conversion”, sparking dismay and protests among Hindus and Christians. The recently promulgated Hindu Marriage Act 2015 contains a controversial clause stating that “a marriage will be annulled if any of the spouses convert to another religion”. Rights groups have expressed fears that the clause will be misused for forced conversions of married women.

Article 36 of the Pakistani constitution says that “the state shall safeguard the legitimate rights of the minorities, including their due representation in the federal and provincial services.” Article 25 also guarantees equality to all citizens. Regrettably, the lower social status of the minority groups translates into their poor representation in the political system, which hinders their access to governance and justice.

A landmark Supreme Court judgment of 19 June 2014 took note of the injustice meted out to the country’s minorities. Headed by Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, and comprising justices Azmat Saeed and Mushir Alam, the bench observed the general lack of minority rights, and how those entrusted with law enforcement are also not fully sensitized to this issue. The judgment explains religion in broad liberal terms, declaring it a fundamental right of every person to “profess, practice and propagate his religious views even against the prevailing or dominant views of its own religious domination or sect”. It is unfortunate that this progressive judgment has not garnered any noticeable reaction from the government.

The Asian Human Rights Commission demands that Tahira and Reema should be returned to their parents and criminal proceedings should be initiated against their captors and rapist. Pakistan’s government should ensure the security of the country’s religious minorities from judicial injustice. Moreover, the recommendation of the Supreme Court for the formation of a three-member bench to exclusively look out for minority rights violations should be urgently implemented to streamline and address complaints related to minorities.