His is a valid question. According to the People’s Human Rights Organisation, seven teenage Hindu girls have been kidnapped from Sindh province in the last two months alone, and forcibly converted to Islam.
The court formed a commission
to establish the facts of the Reena-Raveena case. The commission presented its interim report to the court, soon after which the sisters were allowed to go back to their husbands. The court concluded that the girls were not forcibly converted. Das says his
family is unhappy with the decision as they were not heard by the court.
Khawar Mumtaz, Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, who was part of the commission, says the sisters were sure about their decision. They knew before
getting married that the two men were already married, she says. “These girls were institutionally facilitated. Everything appeared to have been well planned: they were taken to a religious seminary and travel arrangements were made for them. Besides,
Dargah Pir Bharchundi Sharif [where the girls were converted] is known for such practices.” The court has asked the commission for a larger report on the issue of conversions on May 14.
The role of madrassas
A 2015 report by the South
Asia Partnership-Pakistan in collaboration with Aurat Foundation found that that at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The report stated that the conversions take place in the Thar region, particularly in the districts
of Umerkot, Tharparkar, Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, Ghotki, and Jacobabad. People convert due to financial and economic reasons, the report said. It identified landlords, extremist religious groups, weak local courts, and an insensitive administration as working
While in south Sindh, particularly in Umerkot and Tharparkar, the Hindus are mostly poor, in the north they are better off. Largely, it is girls from low-caste, poor Hindu families who are forcibly converted.
The Hindus in these regions
say that two madrassas — Dargah Pir Bharchundi Sharif and Dargah Pir Sarhandi — are “symbols of terror and fear”. Harris Khalique, writer and Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says madrassas provide an “institutional
backing and that cannot happen if the state does not allow that. I rest the responsibility of such incidents squarely on the state, which fails its citizens.” These conversions reflect a potent mix of patriarchy, economic deprivation, and religious hierarchy,
he says. “Most of these girls come from Scheduled Castes. The men they marry are mostly financially better off. Even if they are just marginally better off, they belong to a more privileged segment of society. It becomes a power dynamic.”
girls from poor farming communities are especially vulnerable to conversions, says senior journalist Shahzeb Jillani. “Wealthy Muslim farmers see them as fair game for abductions, rape, and prolonged sexual exploitation in captivity. Some notorious religious
establishments proudly validate these alleged crimes. State institutions, the police, and politicians have encouraged the trend by looking the other way,” he says.
Jillani points out that Mirpur Khas, Tharparkar and Umerkot see the highest number
of conversions. “The Pakistani military has traditionally viewed this population with suspicion,” he says. “Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl runs a large well-funded madrassa, especially for new Muslim convert families near Chhor. In recent years,
the army has increased its direct and indirect presence in the region by encouraging more madrassas and Islamic charity work. Jamaat-ud-Dawah and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation are among those outfits whose presence and field work has expanded in Thar during
the last five years.” Therefore, the conversion of Hindu girls in border regions has to be seen in the context of these wider developments and the Pakistani state’s security fears and paranoia vis-à-vis India, he adds.
lawmaker Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, who founded the Pakistan Hindu Council, goes back in history to blame General Zia-ul-Haq for the present plight of minorities in Pakistan. “Minorities started to feel like ‘minorities’ during his time. As a
result, low-caste Hindus were exploited by powerful people in the area. From 23% at the time of Partition, Hindus constitute around 5-6% of the total population today,” he says.
Speaking of the role of madrassas, Vankwani says these institutions
often give money to people to convert Hindu girls to Islam. “Whenever a Muslim boy runs away with a Hindu girl, the girl is taken in by one of the three madrassas and provided shelter,” he says. “Nobody has taken notice of the threats given
to the Hindu community.”
Unlike in countries like Malaysia, where there is a process in place for conversions, there is no such process in Pakistan, Vankwani points out. “In Malaysia, those who want to convert submit an application/affidavit
saying they are adults and want to change their religion. The process takes around three months. Then, a statement is recorded by a civic authority. Conversions cannot take place without the consent of the family in case of a minor. What kind of society is
this where you convert and then don’t allow them to meet their families and also get them married off within a short span of time?”
Asad Jamal, a lawyer, says madrassas should be prohibited from issuing conversion certificates. “Such
an act should be penalized. Any law on forced conversions must have such a provision. Unless this is done, the market of conversions established by retrogressive religious groups will continue to flourish. It sustains their politics,” he says.
Munizae Jahangir, who has conducted several shows on forced conversions, recalls reporting on a case many years ago in which three young girls from a poor Hindu family were offered to board by a madrassa after converting to Islam. When Jahangir asked the girls
why they had converted, she says they told her that they had done so after watching a popular TV show on ‘Quran TV’. While people have the freedom to convert, there is also a system that facilitates the process, Jahangir says.
Not all conversions
are forced through. According to a report by Ayesha Tanzeem published in the Voice of America, “Some minor girls eloped with Muslim men against their family’s wishes and changed their religion since marriage between a Muslim and a Hindu is not
allowed in Islam. The parents often claimed to kidnap, since local police were unlikely to take action if it was determined the girls left willingly.” Thus, determining whether or not a case of conversion is forced or voluntary is often tricky.
Many believe that a crucial differentiation must be made between cases of conversion of minor girls and adult women. Legal expert Reema Omer says that in cases of conversion of minor girls, the primary failure is in ensuring the implementation
of the law against child marriage. Conversion becomes a secondary issue in these cases, she says. “This includes the lax attitude of families as well as the state on timely birth registrations. It also includes the state’s apathy in ensuring that
such marriages are stopped and the perpetrators are penalized.”
Given the conflicting reports on Reena and Raveena’s age, the question to be asked is, why were their births not registered soon after they were born? While Das says birth certificates
were “not really a priority for the family”, locals say the process of registering births and deaths is cumbersome. This omission is what allows families to get away with child marriage, says Omer.
A medical report presented before the court
stated that the two girls are not minors. In addition, a source in the Sindh government told The Hindu on the condition of anonymity that Reena and Raveena’s call data show that they were regularly in touch with the men they married. The police also
claim that the girls married of their own free will. Das and his family refuse to believe this. “We had never seen these men. We saw them for the first time in the nikkah video,” Das says.
Sulema Jahangir, an advocate of the High Courts
in Pakistan, says that while conversions of underage girls is a cause for concern, there are also instances of older women converting voluntarily to Islam to escape an abusive marriage, hinting at the complexities involved in the issue. When the Sindh Hindu
marriage law was being debated a few years ago, a lot of Hindu groups protested against allowing women the right to divorce and remarry. Some experts believe that it is important not to give the state greater control over women’s lives.
Chaudhry says minorities face problems everywhere in the world. “In this case, we have once again proved that the state of Pakistan stands with its minorities and marginalized communities/groups. The state has not abdicated its responsibility. The only problem is that if an adult takes a decision herself/himself, and gives a statement in the court of law, then we cannot interfere in such cases. Our policy, though,
is very clear on minority rights — we are against any forced conversions and we will not let that happen,” he says.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf lawmaker says on the condition of anonymity that the Prime Minister is not too keen to dwell on this issue fearing backlash from powerful religious groups.
Three years ago, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed
the Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015, which made forced conversions punishable by law. But following a backlash from conservative Muslim groups, the legislation never saw the light of the day.
Asad Jamal, a lawyer, says the main failure lies in preventing child marriage. But what makes the situation trickier is the fact that the minimum age for marriage varies
across regions. In Punjab, it is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. In Sindh, it is 18 for both girls and boys. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the legal marriageable age for girls is 14 in accordance with the original Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929.
“There is a law against child marriage, but it is inadequate,” says Jamal. “All child marriages under the age of 18 should be prohibited and declared invalid.”
Murtaza Wahab, an adviser on information and law to the Sindh Chief Minister, says that in principle, the Sindh government has decided to reconsider the forced conversions Bill. “We will start
the consultation process again. We will have consultations with the Hindu community as well as those from the religious school of thought regarding the age limit for conversions, which was the main bone of contention the last time around,” he says.
Pakistan’s lawmakers are slowly realizing that until such time that a law is enacted on conversions and strictly implemented,
it will be an uphill task to put a stop to forced conversions.
13 Apr 2019/ Saturday