A matter of faith
By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: April 9, 2014
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 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.
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.