20th June 2021

By Ahmed Saeed & Rehan Piracha


LAHORE

A life’s dream of studying to be a doctor, to care for her family, and to be someone she wanted has been shattered for 13 year old Nayab Gill.

Snatched away from her own family, the teenager has become yet another victim of forced conversion.

For her parents the abduction of their daughter feels like an untimely death. They are broken by the worry of her well being and safety – something they know she is not. They are unable to move on as their home resonates with her abscence.

Nayab’s mother Samreen remembers how the whole thing began, and her conversations with her daughter.

“I begged her, but she said she did not want to live with us and that she wanted to continue living with that man,” cries Samreen, who has been left traumatized by her minor daughter’s religious conversion and marriage by force.

“Even when her grandmother pleaded with Nayab to return home, she told us to think of her as dead as her grandfather was,” says Samreen, tears rolling down her face as she talks to Voicepk.net.

Nayab belongs to a Christian family – her father, Shahid, who works as a tailor, her mother, and her other three siblings. Their home is a depressing single-room place on the outskirts of Gujranwala.

At first Nayab was offered work by their neighbour, Saddam, with a promise of getting added income. In the beginning it had been enough for Shahid and his wife to send their daughter over to Saddam’s house for domestic work. But then the story began to change and trusting Saddam was to become the most dangerous thing they had ever done.

“In December, Saddam told me that he had a shortage of sales girls, and asked me to send my daughter to work for him,” Shahid says. Initially, he told Saddam off saying it was not proper to send his 13-year-old daughter away from home to work with him.

“But Saddam kept reassuring me saying that he would look after Nayab like one of his own four daughters,” he says.

When Shahid refused, Saddam then visited his wife and assured her that Nayab would be safe with him.

“He swore upon the Holy Quran, and told my wife that Nayab would be kept like his own daughters,” he says.

Trusting a predator

The next day, Shahid met Saddam in his shop and agreed to let Nayab work with him as a door-to-door sales girl selling cosmetic products.

Saddam promised to pay the girl a salary of Rs10,000 but instead paid the family intermittently in small amounts. Eventually he owed them about Rs25,000. Things were about to change soon.

Instead of the agreed time of 5 pm, Saddam now began dropping Nayab home much later in the evening, which prompted her parents to tell her to stop working for him anymore.

The very next day, on May 20, Nayab set off for work as usual but did not return. But when they approached Saddam, he claimed to have no knowledge of the girl’s whereabouts.

As they tried to trace her, they discovered that Saddam may have been lying to them. The landlord of a rented house told the parents that he had seen Saddam with the young girl. As soon as they heard this, they lodged a first information report (FIR) of her abduction. The same man also told the couple that Saddam and Nayab often frequented the house together.

Legal twists and turns

On May 29, a kidnapping case was registered against Saddam and seven others in the Ferozewala police station.

A few days later, however, police informed Nayab’s family that she had sought shelter at a Dar-ul-Aman, and that she had converted to Islam and married someone called Saddam.

According to police, the girl later appeared before a local court where her statement was recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). In her statement, the girl said that she had left her house willingly to convert to Islam and later contract marriage with Saddam.

Police said that the court had allowed the girl to go with her ‘husband’ and had also ordered the police to quash the case, after which police implemented the court order.

A change in behaviour

Coming out from the court hearing, Saddam’s attitude changed completely towards the family.

“He told me he was taking my daughter away,” Shahid says. “he threatened me that even if I went to the prime minister he would never be able to get his daughter back. But the mills of God grind slowly. He will surely be held accountable for what he has done.”

Shahid is worried about his daughter’s suffering.

“Since her appearance in court, we have no clue of her whereabouts. She is just a child. We don’t even know whether she is dead or alive,” says a visibly shaken Shahid.

Locals of the area say that 31 year old Saddam, has five children of his own while the eldest of his four daughters is almost the same age as Nayab.

Distressing developments

When the police produced Nayab in a magistrate’s court, she stated that she was 19 years old and had voluntarily gone with Saddam.

Her parents showed the court their daughter’s NADRA’s birth registration form, according to which her age is over 13 years.

According to Nayab’s mother, Nayab was in a terrible condition when she came to court that say. She very clearly looked like she had been tortured, says her mother.

“She looked miserable, and was wearing a torn dress. She had been badly slapped – so hard that their were imprints on her face. Her eyes were red rimmed as if she had been crying.

I tried to get close to her but she moved her chair away. I begged her to forgive me but she did not listen. The judge then asked me to move away,” says Samreen.

The Christian couple told the court that if they had been married for 18 years, how was it possible that their second born was 19 years old, as she had declared?

But according to the family, the court did not even review the documents and allowed the girl to go instead with a woman named Asiya who was a complete stranger to the family.

Voicepk.net made several calls to Saddam on his cellphone but his number was switched off.

The Christian couple says as soon as Nayab came out of the court premises, they saw Saddam and some others pick her in a car and drive off.

Since that fateful day, Nayab has not been seen.

Samreen informs that Nayab was in the seventh grade and loved studying. She wanted to become a doctor and to lift her family out of poverty.

“Nayab would often say she wanted to fulfill all the wishes of her siblings by becoming a doctor,” Samreen recalls.

Ripples of fear

More than 300 Christian families who are living in the area have been affected by this incident.

According to Firdous, a neighbour of Samreen, forced conversions are not only unacceptable, but such incidents also posed a threat to the Muslims and Christians living side by side in the area.

“This is a great injustice to our community. Forcibly converting Christian girls is completely unacceptable and intolerable,” she says. “If you want to throw us out of this country, throw us out, that would be more acceptable to us. But we will not tolerate the humiliation of our daughters,” she laments.

According to Samreen, her daughter is simple and naive, adding that she may have possibly been pressured into marrying.

She wants her daughter back, but the impoverished family does not have the resources to fight the legal battle for their daughter’s return.

Legal Assistance

The Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell has reached out to the family and will be providing free legal aid to the Nayab’s parents.

According to Nida Aly, the Executive Director of the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS), many legal questions remain unresolved in this case and she will do her best to get Nayab back to her parents.

“It is an important case as it relates to the religious minority community, as well as forced and underage marriage,” Aly says.

Referring to a similar case of forced conversion and the marriage of minor Christian girl Farah Shaheen in Faisalabad, she hoped that her organization would be able to reunite Nayab Gill with her family as they had done successfully in that case.

“The girl’s age was falsified as the birth certificate proves she is not over 14 years of age and the nikah nama does not have names of any witnesses,” Aly points out. “Most likely we will move a habeas corpus petition in court so that the girl is presented before a court,” she says.

Unfortunately, says Aly, there is no law on underage conversion while underage marriage is completely illegal.

“It’s time we show progression in such cases where minor girls are forcibly taken away and married off to older men,” she adds.

A broken life

Meanwhile trying to make sense of what their lives have come to, Samreen remains deeply disturbed by the incident saying she has never felt as weak and helpless living in the country as she has been feeling ever since her daughter was taken away.

In a report in November last year, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) stressed that around 162 questionable conversions had been reported in the media between 2013 and 2020 and abuses that had occurred in violation of religious freedom enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution.

With no law left to support victims of forced conversion, entire families are destroyed, and fighting a case has its own challenges.