By Peter Jacob
It is stressful work to read through the trauma of hundreds of families that have been affected by forced conversions every year in Pakistan.
Providing a working definition of forced conversion, as well as data of 160 individual cases between 2013 and 2019, the Centre for Social Justice has published a detailed research study called ‘Silence of the Lambs’. While I read through some of these cases, it was intriguing to realize how similar it is to see a ‘violation’ of human health, such as an outbreak of a disease, and the violation of the rights of vulnerable people.
Sadly, the seriousness of any disease – including the current Coronavirus pandemic – is usually noticed at once and acted upon. But the impact of social evils on the ‘health of society’ and collective conscience, goes by largely unmeasured.
Forced conversions are just one form of systematic and gross human rights violations. Ultimately though the price is paid heavily by the most vulnerable section of society carrying a manifold impact on their lives.
Let me analyze a few cases of forced conversions of adolescents belonging to religious minority communities – mostly Christian and Hindu girls, in both Sindh and Punjab. Most of these cases were adjudicated upon recently or were under investigation or in process in the courts.
Some of the cases which were a travesty to the access of justice in Pakistan are as follows:
The case of Huma Younas, 14, an 8th grade student from a Christian family. The human went missing on October 10, 2019, from her house in Zia Colony, Karachi. An FIR was lodged by Younas, Huma’s father under Section 365 B, PPC on 12th October 2019, alleging that Abdul Jabbar, 24, a taxi driver living in their neighborhood had abducted her.
According to the case file, the marriage between Abdul Jabbar and Huma, (whose name was changed to Mehek later) was solemnized by one Qari Matloob in Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab on 12 November 2019 a month after her alleged abduction. An affidavit was also signed by Huma, supposedly on 14 October 2019 which claims that a Nikkah has been already performed. The family received papers by post, stating that she had converted to Islam and married the alleged abductor. An application was filed on her behalf before the Civil Judge Multan on 15 November 2019, alleging that her father was maligning her willful marriage. On the same day, the Additional Session Judge Multan, Zulfiqar Ahmed Naeem passed orders to SHO PS Qadirpur Raan, restraining him from harassing Huma who had been given a new name, i.e. Mehek.
Her parents filed an application under Article 199 of the Constitution of Pakistan at Sindh High Court after the police failed to recover Huma. Her B-form from the NADRA and school certificate showed her year of birth as 2005 (14 years old). The investigation officer was changed and the new officer excused himself from the appearance in the court on the last hearing. The next date of hearing was not announced.
Huma’s case was a minor girl, falls prey to an acquaintance-turned-predator, is similar to several other cases of forced conversions. But most significant is the avoidance of the jurisdiction of the concerned police station and the court in Karachi. Like Reena and Raveena were produced before a court in Rahimyar Khan, Huma too was transported to Punjab. The same strategy was employed in Rinkle Kumari’s case in 2012.
The culprit dodged criminal investigation, by procuring a marriage certificate somehow, while the girl was in his custody and control. The court did not question this. The matter was portrayed as a civil marriage case.
The story of 12 year old Mohan Ram of Yazman Bahawalpur presents completely different circumstances, and a serious travesty of justice – this time with a male victim.
Muhammad Asif Bhatti, a motorcycle mechanic had his workshop adjacent to Bachu Ram’s, who runs a shoe store. On September 29, 2019, Bhatti asked Mohan to lend some help at his shop. When Mohan did not return, Bachu Ram asked Bhatti about the whereabouts of his son. Bhatti replied that Mohan had converted to Islam and so would not return. When Bachu approached the area SHO he was given the same reason. He also learned that his son’s custody had been given to the Child Protection Bureau. Mohan was also given a new name Abdul Rehman and was remanded to the Child Protection Bureau on September 23, 2019, by the District Magistrate supposedly because he himself wanted to according to his application, and stated conversion as the reason.
Mohan’s family approached the Lahore High Court – Bahawalpur Bench, but the proceedings in the lower court and Mohan’s statement will ascertain his future. If the suspects continue to exert pressure on him, they can manipulate the legal procedures and the family will fail to get justice.
In yet another case in Yazman, Bahawalpur, 15 year old Bhambo Mai, a Hindu girl, was kidnapped on March 13, 2020, during the night by another villager Munir Ahmed who claimed that Bhambo had converted to Islam and married him.
He blackmailed the family through the village chief to pay 400,000 Rupees for the return of the girl which the family managed to give, but Munir Ahmed refused to give custody of the girl. On March 20, the family registered an FIR under section 365 B PPC.
Bhambo’s statement in LHC (Bahawalpur Bench) said that she wanted to live with her husband / alleged abductor. Already, AGHS – Legal Aid cell is preparing to file a petition on behalf of the family.
But as there have been travesties there have also been some positive judgments and proceedings which must also be listed.
In Jacobabad, on February 18, 2020, a District and Sessions Court ordered to prosecute Ali Raza Solangi who had married a Hindu minor girl Mehek Kumari (later named Aliza) after converting her to Islam. During the investigation in late January 2020, the SHO approached the Sessions Court for initiating proceedings under section 552 of Criminal Procedure Code (Cr. P. C.) that grants powers to the Sessions Court to compel restoration of abducted females.
As the report of the medical board ascertained Mahik’s age between 15 and 16 years, the court held the suspects that her marriage violated the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013. The Additional Sessions Judge, Ghulam Ali Kanasiro, directed the DIG police Larkana, and SSP Jacobabad “to take due action against those involved, with 24 hours.
The court also held that the process of shifting of the child Mahik Kumari aka Naniki Kumari aka Aliza from the Darul Aman to the Child Protection Institution be completed within 48 hours, under intimation to this Court, holding the Deputy Commissioner Jacobabad, Secretary of Sindh Women Development Department, DIG Larkana, SSP Jacobabad and in-charge Darul Aman, Larkana responsible.
In this case, the outcome of the proceedings distinctively shows that the court took a holistic view of the facts of the case – focusing on the aspect of child marriage and its law’s violation – as well as all legal protections available to the victim rather than basing the case on statements or claims. Due diligence was applied by immediately ascertaining the girl’s age – and finally making officials responsible for the legal action to be carried out.
Likewise, on March 26, 2020, the Sessions Court of Sahiwal ordered that a Christian girl Saima Javed, 13, be returned to her parents. According to case details, Saima remained 25 days in the captivity of Shan and Nazir Shera. Saima whose family worked as laborers at a Sahiwal brick kiln was abducted when she went out to fetch water. Abductor, Shan Shera claimed that she converted to Islam and married her.
In court, Saima stated that she had been detained against her will and she had not changed her religion upon which the court ordered her to be handed over to her parents.
In another such case, in August 2019 the LHC passed an authoritative order in the Muskan case which should be able to help clarify confusion regarding age, freedom of religion and custody of minors in the wake of conversion.
Nasira Bibi, a Christian woman was a domestic laborer in Sargodha while her husband was in jail serving a sentence in a criminal case. Her 14-year-old daughter Pumy Muskan helped her with her work at a Muslim family’s house who promised to pay for her needs and for Muskan’s education. Muskan was asked to stay with the employer’s family. A few months later, when she went to meet her daughter she was told that Muskan had gone to another city, and having embraced Islam did not want to see her mother anymore.
Nasira protested but she was sent away by the employer. She approached the police, who was initially reluctant but eventually produced Muskan before the Judicial Magistrate, Sargodha on May 5, 2019, in the presence of the accused. The SHO confirmed that Muskan had embraced Islam but in view of her tender age, requested the Magistrate that she should either be handed over to her mother or sent to Darul Aman (shelter home).
The Magistrate recorded Muskan’s statement who expressly stated that she did not want to go with her family. Eventually, she was sent to Darul Aman in Sargodha. Nasira requested the Superintendent Darul Aman to allow her to see her daughter but he refused. On July 8, 2019, she learned that the Magistrate had ordered her release and the Superintendent had once again handed Muskan over to the accused.
Nasira Bibi filed a writ petition in LHC praying that her minor daughter is recovered from the illegal custody of her abductors.
Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh of LHC passed an order on August 2, 2019, passed a detailed judgment that delved into the domestic and international law regarding freedom of religion, authorities on age for conversion, as well as sources from Islamic and contemporary jurisprudence.
The right to religious freedom of minorities can best be elaborated through a Suo Moto Case No.1 of 2014 whereby the CJP stated that “The right to profess and practice is conferred not only on religious communities (in the constitution) but also on every citizen…. every citizen can exercise this right to profess, practice and propagate his religious views even against the prevailing or dominant views of its own religious denomination or sect. In other words, neither the majority religious denominations or sect nor the minority religious denomination or sect can impose its religious will on the citizen. Therefore, not only does it protect religious denominations and sects against each other but protects every citizen against the imposition of religious views by its own fellow co-believers. It needs to be mentioned here that every citizen would necessarily include both males and females (Article 263), which point needs emphasis considering the exclusion or subordination of women in relation to numerous forms of religious practices.”
The judgment further quoted para (e) in the above mentioned authority, “The right of religious conscience conferred on every citizen is a right conferring three distinct rights, i.e. Right to Profess, Right to Practice and Right to Propagate. What this means is that Article 20 does not merely confer a private right to profess but confers a right to practice both privately and publicly his or her religion. Moreover, it confers the additional right not only to profess and practice his own religion but to have the right to propagate his or her religion to others. It is important to note that this propagation of religion has not been limited to Muslims having the right to propagate their religion but this right is equally conferred on non-Muslims to propagate their religion to their own community and to other communities. This should not be seen as a right to encourage conversions but more importantly, should be seen as a right against forced conversions or imposing beliefs on others because if all citizens have the right to propagate then no citizen has the right of forced conversion or imposing beliefs on others.”
Therefore the court held that Nasira being the lawful guardian of Muskan was entitled to her custody and could exercise control over her. The employers could not retain custody of Muskan because Muskan’s legal guardian was against it, secondly, he was not related to her in the prohibited degree, and thirdly, Section 3 of the Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, prohibits the engagement of a child below the age of 15 years for any household work. Muskan’s employment was unlawful, to begin with.
Also, the court held that Muskan was a minor and lacked the legal capacity to change the religion on her own. While faith was a personal matter, the court could still refuse to recognize it for several legal reasons.
Before this judgment of August 2019, another case of Charlotte Javed was also placed before the same court on April 10, 2019. Charlotte a minor from Faisalabad had testified before the court the circumstances involving her forced conversion. The court gave the custody of Charlotte to her family.
Forced conversions are made possible by the manipulation of legal and judicial loopholes which the justice system continues to ignore – with a few exceptions such as the Mahik case in Jacobabad, and the Charlotte and Muskan cases in LHC.
Nevertheless, an insertion of Section 498 B in 2017 (Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2017 IV), has added a new offense into the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860: “forced marriages with a minor and non-Muslim woman” shall be liable to maximum 10 years and a minimum of five years jail term and fine. But there is no evidence that this law was ever applied in the cases that surfaced after its passage of law three years ago.
Normally FIRs heavily rely on using Section 365 B, dealing with the offense of kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage, etc. This section does not cover the complexity of the circumstances. Therefore a proper law is needed that protects the victims of forced conversions.
The victims and their sympathizers providing legal aid also need to pay attention to the quality of legal representation. The cases detailed in this article show that the offenders retain those lawyers who can manipulate the justice system.
Despite a Parliamentary Committee (National Assembly and Senate) being set up on November 21, 2019, which was expected to carry out inquiries and come up with recommendations, it has failed to make any meaningful progress in the past four months. Advocacy with political actors is important as well.
Just like the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic, society has to wake-up and all Governmental and non-governmental stakeholders must play their part to relieve Pakistan of this menace.
The fight against the Corona pandemic is being fought mainly in homes, hospitals, and laboratories. The battleground in the struggle against forced conversions will have to be in the realms of the justice system, parliament, and social spaces.
The writer is the Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and policy analyst. (‘Silence of the Lambs’ can be requested from CSJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.)