The issue of forced religious conversion is not new in Pakistan. It is only in recent years that it has become such a burning issue. Conversion, and marriage of 13-year-old Arzoo Raja with a 44-year-old man, Ali Azhar, have shamed us into confronting all that is rotten in our society yet again. Sindh High Court today wrapped up the case, directed police to proceed against Ali for violating Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. While Arzoo will remain in shelter home & reconsider her decision to not to live with the parents. Now family will file proceedings in relevant court for taking her custody. This case is over but the ordeal of minorities may not end yet.

Arzoo case is not the only case of a kind. As per the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, “Around 1000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam annually.” and the menace is rising. This is not only against Islam’s legal system but also lingering doubts over the country’s commitment to religious minorities.

Role of State

The issue of forced conversion is the sum of many complex, intricate parts. It is a result of private prejudice and the explicit role of the state as well. Despite frequent persecution faced by Non-Muslim girls, we’ve seen little legislative movement to prevent it. Even existent laws are not materially binding. The underlying intent of the legislation is to satisfy political conscience or a formal international obligation. Thereby it has no effective impact to improve this sad state of affairs.

The National assembly of Pakistan had passed the criminal law (amendment) act 2017 (IV), added a proviso in section 498-B of the Prevention of Anti Women Practices Act to criminalize forced marriage. Thenceforth act makes it an offense to force minor and non-Muslim women into marriage, imposed a punishment of five years of imprisonment.

This also added advantage in winning an extension in the GSP plus status by the European Union Parliament in 2018. In contrast, the implementation of the aforementioned law is still an uphill task. However, there’s still no law banning forced conversion, which benefits the accused person in the courts. Lack of consensus among political and religious parties has been a major constraint in formulating any legal policy. Non-dominant religious communities and civil society have long demanded effective legislation to end the practice. But lack of will remained evident among the legislators. 

In fact, instead of acting tough against the perpetrators, the state often blatantly encourages them to continue such sordid indulgence. In March 2019, two Hindu girls, Reena & Raveena, were abducted from Ghotki (northern part of Sindh province), forcibly converted to Islam, and married to two Muslim men.

Police’s response was utterly shameful. They initially refused to file an FIR. Girls’ father protested outside the local police station, begging them to intervene. On the other hand, abductors often moved girls from place to place in an attempt to stay hidden. They were shifted to Rahim Yar Khan, Gujranwala, and Lahore, respectively, before they appeared before Islamabad High Court along with their husbands and confessed to willingly convert and marry Muslim men.

It is still not proven who took them or accompanied them. But apparently, their strong support link and state protection allowed them to function without being captured.

The role of the police was despicable in the case of Arzoo too. They did not file a case under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, in spite of the National Database and Registration Authority records showing the girl’s age as 13.

The chauvinism of the majority

We, the people of Pakistan, feel immense pride in the white essence of our flag. On 11 August 1947, Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his all-important presidential address, demonstrated the fundamental principle of citizen equality.

He illustrated a vision for the soul of our country. But we abandoned his ideals. It is an awful fact that cases of forced conversion and marriage often happen in our country to non-Muslim girls. But the collective denial of the existence of crime incites criminal behavior, conjures up deep emotions, and widen fissures in society.

Social reaction to the subjugation takes on various forms. But the most compassionless is when we constantly thump on about how tolerant and inclusive our society is. Putting it another way, it is simply a rebuttal of the struggles of minority communities that contributes to such eventualities. This is how we derail an important discussion we need to have about the prevailing bigoted mindset against religious minority women. Consequently, extremist doctrine and actions continue to thrive not because the majority support radical attitudes against minorities but because there is no countervailing narrative of religious harmony.

The patriarchy

In patriarchal societies, women bear the burden of upholding the honor and values of their families. They are responsible for preserving the sanctification of their families and are not worth living if incapable of rightly protecting it. In the case of forced conversion, this very notion of honor turns the sufferings of women more intense.

Activist and poet Amar Sindhu in an interactive talk about forced conversion at “The Second Floor – T2F,” talked about patriarchal structure within the Hindu community that makes it difficult for women to return to their families. “whenever we ask their families, would they accept their women If they come back? They seem hesitant to respond. I know many girls who want to come back, but the fear of being forced into another marriage or being sent abroad by the family out of shame and stigma associated with being abducted, raped, and converted prevent girls from coming back.” Family has a tremendous capacity to overturn the set norms and the biased construct of terms like shame but patriarchal ideas perpetuate trauma, and women have been kicked back into the space ordained by patriarchy for them.

Now Arzoo is safe & can return to her family. But this problem will persist due to the prolonged absence of state role and uncurbed impunity for some holy cows. Society has to respond collectively to dangers from within.

Immediate formulation and enforcement of a sound legislative framework are imperative to provide a safe and secure living environment. Moreover, Exploitation does not always emanate from state action but also from certain individuals or groups in society. It is incumbent upon us to ensure fundamental human rights instead of resorting to abstract self-asserted values of fairness and inclusivity. Furthermore, change has to evolve from the social fabric. The real task at hand is to shift attitudes towards victims at the level of family and community, so the girls do not have to engage in a bitter and often hopeless fight against their families, nor be forced to live with their perpetrators.

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