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Minority report: 1000 Christian & Hindu girls forcefully converted in 1 year

A matter of faith

By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 9, 2014

Alarming statistics released by a report highlight forced conversions of women. ILLUSTRATION: FAIZAAN DAWOOD

As he cites the example of that case that happened in 2008 when two young Christian girls were abducted, the voice of Nadeem Anthony breaks with emotion. “During the last ten years, the Christian community has seen an increasing number of abductions of young girls and they being forcefully converted.
A big number of these girls are poor child labourers who work in brick kilns or as domestic help. Abductions from schools have also happened,” said Anthony, a lawyer, a Christian rights’ activist and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The case mentioned by Anthony was of the abduction of ten year old A and 13 year old S from Muzaffargarh district in Punjab. Both were converted forcefully, and one of them was forcefully married. Despite the case being highlighted, Anthony says only the younger girl could be recovered.
The issue of forced conversions is once again in the spotlight due to the findings of a report released on Monday by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan (MSP). The report titled “Forced marriages and forced conversions in the Christian community of Pakistan” states that an estimated 1,000 women from Christian and Hindu communities are forcibly converted and made to marry Muslim men in Pakistan every year. The report estimates that up to 700 of these women are Christian and 300 Hindu.
As 42 per cent of Pakistan’s minority population, the Christian community stands at over two million in number, mostly settled in Punjab. The report mentions that according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP), 80 per cent of the minority community is poor while 40 per cent lives below the poverty line. Poverty, as always, makes them more vulnerable.

The pattern

The report describes a predictable pattern of what happens to these women. “Christian girls — usually between the ages of 12 and 25 — are abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or a third party. The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity. Upon production in the courts or before the magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or if she was abducted,” states the report.
By the time they come to the court, if at all, intimidation has taken its toll. “We have followed up a lot of cases. By the time the girls are produced in court, they say under pressure that they have converted of their own free will, because in a lot of cases they are living with the abductor during court proceedings. Survival becomes tough under pressure,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the HRCP.
The report raises valid concerns about the future of these women. “Once in the custody of the abductor, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking and sale, or other domestic abuse,” states the report.

Willful conversions

Providing recommendations that can help solve the problems, the report also touches upon the societal attitudes that end up granting immunity to the perpetrators of crimes.
“If the girl is an adult and converts out of her own will, then it is her choice. Then that is not forced. However in most cases even if the husband accepts her wholeheartedly, the family of the boy never accepts her. They taunt her with titles like choori (sweeper) for life. In many cases they send the girl back to her parents,” says Anthony.
The entire social context has to be seen when analysing the issue, and the MSP report does that. Touching upon the historical and social contexts, the report discusses the grievances of Pakistan’s Christian community.
Yusuf is of the opinion that “even if the girl is willfully converting, the issue is actually connected to the broader issue of tolerance for minorities in Pakistani society. We have to give minorities the space to practise their faith.”
Anthony appreciates the efforts of voices like that of Maulana Abdul Khabeer Azad, the Khateeb of Badshahi Masjid, among others, who support what is just and fair. In the opinion of Anthony, one of the reasons for the recent spike in migrations of the Christian community members to countries like Thailand and Malaysia is that they feel scared for their girls.
“What is happening is unacceptable. The findings of the report should be taken seriously and the government should take notice of this,” says Anthony.
Along with the report, an appeal was issued by the MSP. An inclusive coalition is being mobilised by the MSP to sensitise people about this important issue.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2014.

Is it fair to blame Imran Khan for the Peshawar Church Blast?


By Farahnaz Zahidi 8 minutes ago


After all, something needs to come up on Google when in the possible near future the average American asks, who is the man that's shooting down our drones? PHOTO: REUTERS

The church blast in Peshawer took away more than 80 innocent lives. People had gone there to pray, not knowing their funeral prayers would follow soon.

As always, the shock had subsided the day after the blast, but there was sadness – a constant dull ache that refused to recede. A recurring realisation existed that so many had lost their lives just because they prayed differently. Nothing seemed to help. Tweeting and facebooking allowed people to vent and rave temporarily, but frankly, social media acts as temporary anaesthesia. It numbs the pain for a bit, but the pain and anger returns. Always.

Then there was a call to attend a vigil for the victims and it turned out to be just what I needed. I needed a forum to express my solidarity with Christian Pakistanis – stand by them and join them in prayer. I needed some semblance of peace in that time of turmoil. As a mother, I needed to teach my daughter that this matters to us.

Thankfully, the vigil offered all this.

Like most vigils, a handful of people gathered at 8:00 pm. outside the Karachi Press Club. There were representatives of the Christian community, activists, a few Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters, and some student activists of other parties – all with candles amid eerie peace that is always present on candlelight vigils.

While some people took the microphone to share their feelings, others quietly donated blood at the makeshift blood camp. They knew that their blood might never make it to Peshawer to the injured of the blast, but it would reach someone somewhere and someone would benefit.

That was the only thought on everyone’s mind – to help, to do something.

However, slowly the mood began to change. As the crowd spotted PTI supporters showing their respect peacefully, the quiet whispers became loud insults.  One person questioned,

“So you kill people in the day by being apologists for extremists, but you attend a vigil for those whom you murdered in the night?”

Another continued,

“You all have your political agenda.”

As the insults became louder and more direct, the anger escalated and the blame game started. Abuses and loud slogans of “Shame Imran Shame” became louder. The poor organizer apologised for the unpleasant allegations being hurled and the ‘peace’ that we had all come looking for, was replaced by the scapegoat syndrome.

As the pastor eventually began to recite a beautiful prayer for tolerance and harmony in Pakistan, the irony became all the more jarring. I realised that the lack of tolerance first rears its ugly head when people can no longer hear each other out. We all know that as a nation, whenever anything happens, we are quick to jump the gun almost as if our only way of trying to find sanity amidst the mayhem is by looking for a scapegoat.

For this incident, the scapegoat happens to be Imran Khan and PTI’s pro-negotiation policy. I saw this not just at the vigil; but on social media, talk shows and heard it in conversations. According to Twitter, he was even pelted with insults and tomatoes. His supporters were made to feel guilty as if they and their party were the reason for killing the slain.

As a nation, we are too angry, too bitter, too mistrusting and too awkward in the art of dialogue. We accuse, we abuse, we vent, we blame and we move on. Until the next tragedy and then the chain begins again.

However, this attitude is hardly surprising and our history shows this more than once. I recall clearly the Karsaz blast of October 18, 2007 that killed some 200 people. Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto had returned to Pakistan with utmost sincerity to lead her people to democracy once again and her welcome procession was attacked. Although she survived that blast, just hours after the blast, I remember these words being uttered:

“She must have gotten the blasts done herself to gain sympathy and support”.

These voices were silenced but only once she was assassinated. However, the inherent psyche still remains.

This blog is not about Imran Khan or the efficacy and legitimacy of proposed negotiations. This is not about the fact that Pakistan has lost 35,000 civilians and 3,500 security personnel to acts of terrorism between 2006 and 2011 only according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2010-2011 – years in which we had a strictly no-negotiation policy. This is not about whether extremists should be offered an office or not, though that move actually may help give them a face and make it more feasible to deal with them. After all, whatever the scapegoat says or does, even if it makes sense, people will oppose it on a reflex.

This is about the realisation that if we differ in opinion, we must first learn how to disagree with a certain decorum. We can’t hurl a shoe at Musharraf and insult Imran Khan, and then expect tolerance in society. If we do so, we will claim our sincerity as much as we like, but we will end up causing more dissension, which is not what this country needs at all. By playing blame-games, are we doing a service or a disservice to those who lost their lives last Sunday?

It is time we gave practical solutions rather than blame scapegoats with allegations of unholy alliances.