A minor Hindu girl disappears and suddenly reappears a few months later as a Muslim woman, married to an older Muslim man. This is not a new story – it is a reality that minority communities are being forced to live with as minority rights in Pakistan are regularly curtailed and denied.
The Case of Mehek Kumari
On the 18th of February 2020, a 16 year old girl was escorted under heavy police protection to a court in Jacobabad. 2 months ago she had vanished from her home. It soon came to light that she had gotten married to a much older Muslim man, and that she had converted to Islam and changed her name from Mehek to Aliza. This is not a new story.
Mehek’s parents had contended the legitimacy of her marriage in court, as she was yet still 16. According to the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014, the legal minimum age for marriage is 18. And as per the girl’s birth certificate and school records submitted by the parents, Mehek’s marriage is neither legal nor is it valid.
However, whether or not Mehek’s case is a matter of forced conversion or not is a muddled issue. The girl had initially stated that she had accepted Islam of her own free will, however in a hearing prior to the 18th of February, she rescinded her statement, expressing her desire to return to her parents.
The Verdict and Responses from Religious Communities
In the verdict issued by the court on the 18th of February, the girl is to be sent to a children’s shelter until she turns 18. Whether or not Mehek’s custody will be awarded to her parents or her husband for when she becomes a legal adult is a decision that the court has decided to reserve for when she does turn 18. However, the court has ordered that an FIR be lodged within 24 hours against the husband for marrying a minor, and against the witnesses and the nikka-khawan for solemnizing the marriage.
Marrying minors is a punishable offence under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, with up to 3 years imprisonment for the person marrying the minor as well as those who solemnize the marriage.
Fear and concern among Pakistani Hindus are heightening due to the rising number of forced conversions.
“Our people are afraid,” said Jawar Singh, a relative of Mehek. “When parents send their children to school, they’re overtaken with worry, and hope and pray their children return home from school safely.”
Politico-religious parties organized a city-wide strike in Jacobabad. JUI-F Chief Dr. A. G. Ansari, agreeing with the court’s verdict, said that the party will take legal counsel on any subsequent actions.
“We respect the court’s decision,” he said. “We have constituted a team of lawyers who are reviewing the verdict. We will follow whatever recommendations the team suggests.”
Legislation for Minority Rights in Pakistan
In 2016, the Sindh Assembly passed legislation criminalizing forced conversion but due to opposition from politico-religious parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rescinded the law.
Pakistan Muslim League Functional’s (PML-Functional) member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly Nand Kumar, who had moved the legislation, held PPP responsible for blocking its passage a second time.
“If this bill had been passed, then all these injustices against religious minorities, against our children would finally halt. Currently there are no laws safeguarding us from forced conversions,” he said. “[The PPP] did not concur with this bill – they are touted as the champions of minorities, and celebrate Holi and Diwali but their words contradict these deeds. As the ruling party in Sindh, they have the responsibility [of ensuring protection to minorities].”
Increasing reports of abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls is a concerning matter for not just the government, but for the sanctity of society as well. Comprehensive legislation and strict implementation of laws are desperately needed to correct this social ill.
Update (22nd February 2020): An FIR has been lodged against those involved in contracting and solemnizing Mehek Kumari’s marriage. While the nikkah-khawan Syed Azizullah Amroti and 2 witnesses have acquired pre-arrest bail, Ali Raza who had married the underage girl has absconded.