The epidemic of forced conversions

News Analysis

The issue of forced conversions is one that is quite prevalent in Pakistani society today. A study conducted by the University of Birmingham estimated that at least 1,000 women, who belonged to religious minorities, were abducted and forced to accept and follow the religious teachings of Islam, every year in the country.

Lawyer for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Amarnath Motumal also informed that at least 20 Hindu girls are abducted every month and are forced to convert, after which they are forcibly married to their captors.

Unsurprisingly, the same fate befalls many Christian women in the country as well.

It is important to discuss the role of forced conversions in society, as this has not only become a societal issue but also disregards the civil and religious liberties of the minorities in the country. To make matters worse, Pakistan has signed the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), in which Article 16 clearly states that women cannot enter into marriage without their ‘free and full consent’.

The Recent Case of Forced Conversions

The need to discuss the issue of forced conversions comes after news broke that two Hindu girls, aged 14 and 16, had allegedly been kidnapped and forced to convert. This has encouraged action from the Prime Minister who has ordered the Punjab and Sindh government to work together in retrieving the kidnapped girls.

The situation of the forced conversion has been quite controversial, in the sense that family members of the kidnapped girls say that the girls had been taken away and were subjected to convert as a result of the pressures of their captors, while the Sindh police have said that a video had surfaced in which the two girls claimed that they had not been abducted and that they had left home on their own free will. However, nothing can be made certain at this point because no proper investigation has yet to be taken regarding this matter.

But, this situation raises a serious question. Why would the Sindh police not conduct their due investigation based on the significance of this matter? Was the video of the two girls on social media substantial evidence? Or is it that the Sindh police is bogged down with other more pressing matters? It seems as though the Sindh police has not given this problem its due diligence and has probably moved on to something else.

Kamal Siddiqui, former editor of the Express Tribune, wrote “the police often turn a blind eye to this thereby creating impunity for the perpetrators.”

Attempts at Countering the Issue

2013: After a series of protests and demonstrations from different activist groups and political parties, the Sindh government finally decided to create a committee to consider legislation to help and curb the problems of forced conversions and forced marriages. As a result, the bill was passed which dictated legal guidelines and other processes for the parties involved in the matter. If anything, this proved to be a major step in curbing the societal issue and, more importantly, in raising and defending civil liberties.

2016: The bill with regards to the forced conversions and marriages was unanimously passed by the Sindh Provincial Assembly. However, as with many bills in Pakistan, it was returned by the then Governor Saeed uz Zaman Siddiqui in January 2017.

2018: Prior to winning the elections, Imran Khan had promised to uplift the minority religious groups across the country and take measures to prevent forced marriages and conversions of Hindu girls.

2019: PM Imran Khan has directed the Punjab and Sindh government to look into this matter. If anything, there has been an attempt made by the PM to help resolve this issue.

Considering the history and timeline of these events, it is of utmost importance that the provincial government in Sindh pass bills against forced conversions, to help safeguard the religious minorities in the country. However, if this cannot be done than the Supreme Court should take suo moto action against this problem, as urged by the Pakistan Hindu Council.

History of forced conversions

This issue is one that has been around since decades and every now and then the Pakistani public is subjected to another horrible matter regarding forced conversions and marriages. This issue can be traced back all the way to the inception of Pakistan in 1947.

However, the concern for forced conversions is most common in Sindh where the majority of the Hindu population is found. Similar incidents have occurred in the past.

In 2012, Rinkle Kumari, a Hindu women, was abducted and forcibly married. The case that gained a lot of domestic and foreign media attention was, in the same way as the current case, mixed in a lot of controversy. The outcome of Ms. Kumari is still unknown with many speculating that she is either being sexually exploited or she has been killed.

In a similar case which transpired in 2016, Sidra Javed, who was 19 at the time, was not only forcefully married to her landlord’s son, after he threatened her with taking action against her father and 8 year old brother, but was also sexually assaulted. Fortunately, Ms. Sidra was a lucky individual as she was able to slip away from her captors.

Unfortunately it would be unethical not to admit these problems are of the past or that they don’t occur quite as often, however, that is not the case. The incidents that we the public are aware of are one in many. Occurrences like these take place every day and they never see the light of day.

Civil liberties have often times been neglected in Pakistan and the lack of action from competent authorities, leads everyone, especially minorities, to believe that these are problems that are here to stay. If actions from the government still show negligence in this area, then the problem instead of being curbed will just increase.

The people who constantly forget that there is a white part in the flag of Pakistan which is for the equal opportunity and rights for the minority masses completely disregard the fact that that they trample on the civil rights of those who are born into another religion.

This was not the vision with which Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah founded this great country, and above all, it would be a shame if nothing was done to completely extinguish this societal issue and make this nation into what the Quaid had dreamed it would become.

Hopefully, the new government can take time out to address this issue and make sure that events like these do not happen in the future. Our country can take inspiration and examples from the New Zealand PM, Jacinda Ardern, who in light of the deadly attack on a mosque has shown the world that New Zealand has a special place for its minorities and that they are just as much as a part of their country as everyone else.

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