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Qamar Rafiq

January 20th, 2022

Pakistan’s dilemma of forced conversions and marriages put minority women at risk

10 comments | 46 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Qamar Rafiq

January 20th, 2022

Pakistan’s dilemma of forced conversions and marriages put minority women at risk

10 comments | 46 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

In this post, Qamar Rafiq discusses religious minorities in Pakistan, seen more acutely through the ongoing issue of forced conversations and marriages. Rafiq discusses the failure of the Pakistani state to address these issues, citing ineffective policy reforms, a blind eye from police, and religious structures. 

Photo: Supreme Court of Pakistan

The year 2021 ended on a sour note for religious minorities of Pakistan as their situation remains unchanged for decades. Minorities’ struggle for their rights, respect, and identity has become an uphill battle, and the government’s frequent denial of the reality of forced conversions and marriages have aggravated the situation to horror.  Perhaps, just like previous governments, the current Pakistani administration believes they are doing enough but the truth is the opposite. Today, the abduction, forced conversions and marriages of non-Muslim girls have become one of the biggest human rights crises of the era.

On 26th November 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Pakistani Minorities published a report after an inquiry into abduction, forced conversions and marriages in Pakistan. The report has found around 1,000 girls between the ages of 12-25 from minorities are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year and married to their abductors, which described the situation as a “human-rights catastrophe”.

The report also highlighted the practice of forced conversions and marriages have amplified steadily in recent years that hints at the calamitous handling of the government to reinforce much-needed legislation to curb this inhuman crime. Similarly, the government has been unsuccessful to implement the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 and the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, which raised the legal minimum age of marriage 18 in Sindh province. Regrettably, these laws have not been implemented properly in Sindh and other provinces of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the government is taking a rather long time to understand the problem which is causing a huge damage to the country’s reputation. We are all familiar with the fact that this crisis is a product of the government’s failure over decades to protect the religious minorities from abuses by the non-state actors and religiously inspired extremists. On the other hand, the incidents of hate preach, and religious extremism remains an imminent threat for minority communities particularly girls from the Hindu and Christian faiths.

The Parliamentary report also casts light on how Pakistan has failed to ensure the security and respect of women belonging to religious minorities, with experts calling the situation a national and international tragedy. There are many reasons for this:

Firstly, it is evident that Pakistan’s ineffective policy reforms to address forced conversions and marriages have exacerbated the situation. For instance, last year, the Parliamentary standing committee rejected an anti-forced conversion bill saying the “environment is unfavourable” to formulate this law which prompted a nationwide protest.  It is wholly illogical and disappointing that such marginal opportunities for legislative and policy reforms are flushed down by entrenched lines of incompetence and lack of seriousness. It is no surprise that such astonishingly oppressive measures have played a role in creating a pandemic of forced conversion.

Secondly, the police often turns a blind eye to reports of abduction, forced conversion or marriage, and set up impunity for perpetrators by refusing to record a First Information Report (FIR) or falsifying the information. As a result, the victim girls are largely left in the custody of their kidnapper throughout the trial process, where they are subject to rape and forced to claim that the conversion or marriage was consensual.

Such earth-shattering events often implant a ticking time bomb in victims that may detonate repeatedly in their lives, in the form of emotional breakdown, self-harm or extreme anxiety. Yet, this seems impotent to shake off the police and rule of law which has a duty to safeguard the rights of vulnerable communities. Hence, the predators of such vicious crimes remain free at large from the reach of the government and its justice system to lure others to join a “mafia” that preys on non-Muslim girls.

Thirdly, the Islamic clerics who perform the marriage do not intend to investigate the nature of conversion and age of the girl. For example, in Arzoo Raja case, she was 13 when she disappeared and after two days police reported back that she has embraced Islam to get married with 40 year old Muslim man. Arzoo Raja’s marriage certificate said she was 18 at the time of her marriage to certify the marriage was lawful.  However, this appears to be seriously defective and deviant to disrupt the entire trial process and delay justice.

To convert someone is perceived as a pious deed that will bring rewards, no matter which method is employed to execute the conversion or marriage. It does not have to be this way; the parents of forcefully converted and married victims bear the heavyweight of trauma and loss. And their families walk for miles, queue for hours, and even wait for years with economic pains to wait for their daughters to return home, while their wounds remain as fresh as ever.

The part of the problem is also an ineffective justice system which is discriminatory, particularly towards women from religious minorities which means victims and their families are scared of pleading the case with the challenges to afford a lawyer, in many cases. However, in most cases production of conversion and marriage certificate is enough evidence to pardon the abductors.  It is apparent that the system has loopholes and reform is necessary to protect both human and legal rights of the victims.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned APPG Parliamentary report has sounded an alarm that abuses against the respect, freedom and dignity of minority women are serious enough to urge Pakistan’s government to review their decision to turn down the anti-forced conversion bill. Whichever way you look at it, the respect and dignity of minority girls is a longstanding issue that requires urgent attention to stop the perpetrators from committing vicious crimes in the name of religion.

Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion” but there is enough evidence to justify, Pakistan has failed to comply with international obligation.

Despite all calls to stop forced conversion and marriages from the international community and human rights organizations, Pakistan’s government still demonstrates a marginal interest to advance the frameworks of religion, policy and dialogue to ensure the safety of minority’s girls and women. Although the wind turbines of minority’s rights have been spinning since the independence of Pakistan, when it comes to forced conversion and marriages of minority’s girls, we are going round and round in circles.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

About the author

Qamar Rafiq

Qamar Rafiq is a human rights advocate and freelance Columnist/Writer. He works on the subjects of racism, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), religious persecution of minorities, forced conversion and marriages with specific focus on the persecution of minorities in Pakistan and South Asia. Rafiq has made oral and written submission to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the All Parties Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Pakistani minorities, and the Christian Persecution Review Commissioned by the FCO. Twitter @qamarrafiquk

Posted In: International

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