Being vulnerable

October 24, 2021

On the issue of forced conversions there is no light at the end of the tunnel

Being  vulnerable

“There is nothing to do in the situation but to continue living as we are. I have other children to look after and cannot ignore them to mourn what has happened,” says Akram, a Christian citizen, with tears in his eyes.

He lives in a two bedroom rented house with his four school-going children in Lahore’s Bahar Colony. A majority of the residents in this area are Christians. He has five children. The youngest, an 18-year-old married a Muslim man a couple of weeks ago. According to Akram his daughter agreed to marry the man after spending a night with him. “I could not do anything. If the story came out in the open, the future of my other daughters might be in jeopardy”, says Akram. He says since her marriage his daughter is not allowed to visit her parents.

“The same thing happened with my wife six years ago. I was helpless,” he says. Akram’s wife, Uzma, was forced into marriage with a man he was indebted to. He says he had owed him Rs 350,000. The man abandoned her a year later. She now lives with her relatives.

In 2016, a 14-year-old Christian girl, Shazia, was abducted in Sialkot by a boy from a kasai (butcher) community. Her parents lodged a complaint with the police. The girl was finally produced before a magistrate after three days. According to her recorded statement she had married him of her own freewill. The nikkah certificate stated that she was 18 years old. Her mother, Sakina, produced copies of her birth and baptism certificates, which clearly showed that she was not 18 at the time of her marriage. However, after the girl’s statement in the court, the family decided to stop trying to get her back. “Shazia has a younger sister. It will be difficult for us to marry her off if this dispute lingers. We cannot fight the kasai Muslim community. There is no other way but to accept defeat,” Shazia’s mother had said.

More recently, 13-year-old Arzoo was abducted from Karachi, converted and married to a 40-year-old Muslim man. The matter would not have been highlighted had a video of Arzoo’s mother, pleading for her daughter’s safety, not gone viral on the social media. Arzoo was finally recovered after an arduous fight.

Uzma, Kiran, Shazia and Arzoo, were all from poor Christian families. The issue of forced conversion remains unresolved. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Some religious leaders insist that it is okay for girls under 18 years of age to change their religion and marry. Some of the advocacy activists supposedly fighting for the rights of these Christian and Hindu girls too are not sincere.

Religious minorities make 3.6 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million population. Not long ago there was a dedicated column in Urdu newspapers, which carried details of people who had converted to Islam. All Muslim clerics agree that forced conversion are not allowed. At the same time, most of them maintain that marriage and conversion under the age of 18 are allowed. They insist that it is everybody’s right to embrace Islam at whatever age they choose.

“Everyone must recognise the fact that Pakistan is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. When we talk of an inclusive society we must own the diversity and respect it.” – Rev Shahid Mehraj.

Freedom of religion is protected under Article 20 of the Fundamental Rights in the Constitution. There is no room for forced conversion but, ironically, there is no legal way to stop it either. A law proposed to stop forced conversions has recently been turned down by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Council of Islamic Ideology and not been tabled in the parliament.

According to the Pakistan Penal Code, marrying a minor can land a person in jail for up to 10 years. Sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is considered rape. However, to this date no one has been punished under this law.

Bonded labour was outlawed in 1992 but it still continues. There are more than two million bonded labourers, including women and children. These, mostly Christians in the Punjab and Hindus in Sindh, are vulnerable people.

Dean of Lahore Cathedral Rev Shahid Mehraj says that no one can deny that an injustice has been done. “It is because of the increase in extremism in our society. Everyone must recognise the fact that Pakistan is a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. When we talk of an inclusive society we must own the diversity and respect it.

“There are many Muslim countries besides Pakistan but no forced conversions are reported there. The problem is rooted in our wadera (feudal) system of preying on the poor.

“The situation is related to human rights. It has nothing to do with religion. The miscreants, however, use religion as cover for their misdeeds and to escape punishment. It is unfortunate that the representatives of minorities in the parliament are not answerable to their people but are selected by the political parties”, Rev Shahid says.

The issue at hand is sensitive and many from the Muslim majority are not willing to talk about it. While Sindh does not allow marriage and religious conversion of children below the age of 18 years, an attempt to extend the protection to the rest of the country has failed. The Bill brought forward by MNA Ramesh Kumar has been rejected by the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities.

Dr Ramesh Kumar recalls: “Noor ul Haq said that it was a problem in Sindh but not in the Punjab. I told him that 54 percent of the cases were from the Punjab… Are we willing to take action against the culprits? The bill is not against Islam or Muslims. The official declaration of a conversion to Islam should come only at the age of 18. Let the courts decide that no one is forced to convert.

“There was the issue of GSP Plus. I wrote to the European Parliament that minorities are safe and have no problem here. There will be international pressure. We should protect the minorities and ensure the writ of the state.

“There is a need to change the mindset. This is possible only by changing the curriculum. Education can bring positive change in people. We must strive for that. We must not allow Pakistan’s image to be damaged.”

The writer is a senior journalist and general secretary of the YMCA, Lahore. He can be reached on Twitter @EmanuelSarfraz

Being vulnerable