November 25, 2022
Voicepk in collaboration with the Open Society Institute, for its campaign on the 16 Days of Activism for the Elimination of Violence against Women held a webinar on forced conversions of minority girls.
The webinar was hosted by Munizae Jahangir, Executive Editor of Voicepk.net, who informed the audience that forced conversions were rising over the past few years across Pakistan, especially of Hindu and Christian girls. Abductions forced marriages and forced conversions have given them a feeling of deep insecurity.
“Some families from Sindh in fear of forced conversions, have ended up migrating to India,” she said. “According to statistics provided in a report by the UK Parliament’s Committee on Religious Freedom, around 1,000 women and girls across Pakistan become targets of forced conversion each year. The most worrying situation is that most of these are less than 16 years of age.”
According to the Pakistan-based Center for Social Justice, in 2021, at least 78 cases of forced conversion were reported in the national news media, including 39 Hindus, 38 Christians and one Sikh girl.
Panelists in the special webinar included Mehnaz Akbar Aziz, who won an election from Narowal representing PML-N, and is currently member of the National Assembly.
She is also the Parliamentary Secretary of Law and Justice.
She was joined by Kamran Murtaza, Senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, and a Senator from JUI-F; and Advocate Sarwan Kumar Bheel, who is a lawyer of the High Court and also a representative of the Bheel community which belongs to the list of Scheduled Castes.
Sarwan Kumar Bheel said that in the past two months the numbers had increased drastically. “It seems like there are two factories at work, one by Pir Sarhandi and the other by Mian Mithu,” he said. “People like Mian Mithu get forms and documents signed by clerics that the girl’s religion has been changed. We think the girl should only be allowed to change her religion once she is of adult age. She should also be getting religious education, but that is not happening.”
Bheel also complained that the Sindh Child Marriage Act which is in place is not being fully implemented. Girls from the age of 12 to 16 years are being trapped and abducted and then forcibly converted, he said. He quoted the Chanda Maharaj case saying that the girl was pleading to the magistrate to be allowed to go with her mother, but instead, she was sent to a shelter. The court has still not allowed the girl to meet her parents, but the accused has been able to meet her. “This is despite the fact that the girl is 16 years old according to NADRA. Then from district Badin also two girls have been abducted in a similar manner. Not one leader wants to talk about this issue,” he said.
Bheel added that among the upper-class Hindus, around 2600 families had begun their migration. “Around 10,000 passports have been made already,” he said. “This is a message for our country.”
He said that there was a National Commission for Minorities, with six Muslim clerics but not even one member of the Scheduled Castes which meant hundreds and thousands of people were not represented. He said the in the same way neither did the Pakistan Government’s Child Rights Commission, nor the National Commission for Human Rights has any proper representation of the population.
“Girls from my community who are forcibly converted, bear children, but even then they are not allowed to see their parents again,” he said. “They cant meet their families their entire lives.”
Bheel suggested that Senator Danesh Kumar must be included in the committee on forced conversions along with Bheel community represnettaives.
Conversation on Forced Conversions is a Must
Mehnaz Akbar Aziz said that it was apparent that cases of forced conversions were on the rise. She said that the Speaker had formed a multi-party caucus, on Child Rights and that while this matter would be raised in parliament, she fully condemned it.
“There was a committee on forced conversions that was made in the Parliament but it was never made functional, and this I have mentioned several times,” she said. Two or three bills were also brought forward regarding child marriages, but those too were stopped. However the religious ministry along with Islamic academia were deliberating on one of these recently and hopefully in this cycle of the parliament, it will be done.”
She said the biggest complication was how to converge the matter of forced conversions and the early marriages of both Muslims and minorities.
“In my opinion, minoirties should be taken along this conversation. There should be one Bill highlighting these issues,” she said.
She said that there must be a physical round table conference, under the auspices of child rights caucus where the definition of child would be till 18 years of age.
Mehnaz Akber also said that every minority group was facing this issue. From a parliamentarian’s perspective, we will have to present this as an issue in the parliament. “I would like to sit with members of the minorities and try and understand what the solution to this problem is,” she said.
Challenges to Accepting the Law on Forced Conversions
Senator Kamran Murtaza from JUI-F said that religious factions were always hearing that they were behind everything negative and were often the targets of anything regressive. “Do you believe religion has allowed forcible conversions? If there is conversion it must be with full consent,” he said. “One thing to note is why do these alleged conversions always happen with girls? If a religious group is behind this why aren’t they targeting men as well?”
He mentioned that even while Quaid-e-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had married someone outside of Islam, and there was a huge age difference too, but it was still a consensual marriage.
“We are against any force used to girls or boys to have them change their religious beliefs,” said Senator Kamran. “However if someone does accept Islam then there is no going back for that person. You must see every case for themselves. In many places, it can be understood that there must have been a relationship between the girl and the boy – they got married, and when later the girl felt unhappy or if she wanted to be sent back to her parents, and wanted to re-convert, that is when the problem arises.”
Regarding child marriages, Kamran Murtaza said that there were signs of sexual maturity. “If there is a sexual awakening in a young person, and you do not provide them with a way to quench that awakening, there may be trouble later. Expect them to do it in a illicit way,” he said. “What we are doing is closing down all the right ways and giving them ways to explore it in an illicit manner.”
Munizae Jahangir brought forward the question as to why Pakistan signed international laws and promised to implement them if that was not the case today. She also said that girls who were abducted were also being raped.
One of the cases followed by Voicepk was that of Farah Shaheen who was kept as a slave. ”If this is being done in the name of religion, not only will it violate the rights of the minorities, it will also bring a bad name to the country,” she said.