Pakistan’s crisis of forced conversions


By Benazir Jatoi

IN Pakistan, we have two major crises. The first is the forcing of young non-Muslim girls to forcibly convert to Islam. Forced conversions include psychological trauma, intimidation, abuse, often kidnapping and forced marriage to a man many times older than the girl. All of this is packaged as wilful consent and wrapped under the unquestionable guise of flawed religious interpretations.
The second crisis is the impunity with which those that commit these crimes get away with it. Collective societal consciousness does not comprehend the criminality of these offenses and the Status apparatus has conveniently ignored these crimes. Parliament has had opportunities to legislate banning forced conversions, including under the current federal government, but has so far failed to do so. Imran Khan, before becoming Prime Minister, once said forced conversions were not an Islamic practice. Since in power, he has changed his tune.
The Center for Social Justice reports an approximate 162 ‘questionable conversions’ took place between 2013-2020 (though exact figures are unknown); 52 percent were in Punjab and 44 percent in Sindh, with the Hindu and Christian community the most vulnerable to the crime. What needs emphasis is the age of the girls being converted – all of them under the age of 18 and mostly between the ages of 12 and 15 years. The pattern has become clear over the years – a girl is abducted to be converted and married to a man much older than her, the family registers an FIR with a counter FIR on behavior of the girl by the abductors demanding the court to stop the harassment by the family as the girl has converted at her will. The girl remains with the abductor, while a long-winded case is heard in court and eventually when she does testify in court, she does so out of fear, in favor of the abductor.
Pakistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) mandates that freedom of religion or belief must be safeguarded, including from coercion to change religion without free will. In 2013, the Sindh Assembly failed to pass its protection of minorities bill, due to pressure from a strong religious lobby outside the provincial assembly. In 2016, the Council for Islamic Ideology termed the bill against Islamic principles. Though the CII’s role is only advisory, the bill has since been shelved.

Protestors demand end to forced conversions

Though legislation has been unsuccessful so far, there has been some proactive case law to allow a buildup of jurisprudence on the subject, where the court highlights capacity and consent of a child. In 2020, the Lahore High Court in the case of Pumy Muskan stated that a child barely 14 years of age “lacks the legal capacity to change religion on her own”. Similarly, in the same year, the Sindh High Court in the Arzoo Raja case stated that a minor child cannot enter a legally valid marriage under the Child Marriage Restraint Act. No case law, however, has gone far enough to explore the other aspects of the case, limited by being in civil jurisdiction of the courts. These cases, however, have a clear criminal aspect to them and must be examined and tried simultaneously in the criminal courts under Pakistan’s penal provisions to include intimidation; forced marriage; unlawful restraint and confinement; abetment against those that help with the act of conversion; deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings; assault and force; kidnapping from lawful guardianship; kidnapping someone under the age of 14 years carries the death penalty); procuring of a minor girl, a man deceitfully inducing someone into cohabitation; enticing a woman with criminal intent; rape. These are all existing legal provisions which can be potentially used by the State against those that break the law. What is holding the State back from protecting Pakistani girls from falling to the hands of criminals; criminals who use religion as the excuse to justify coercion and control of a minor.

A file picture shows demonstration against the forced conversions

A forced conversion needs to be understood for what it really is — a series of serious criminal offenses against a minor that operates in extralegal, but open, space and which scars a whole generation within the affected community. Even a lay person who does not have in-depth religious knowledge can surely see and deduce that these acts cannot be justified under scripture; that constraint and compulsion have no place in religion.
Muslims often forget our own history, Pakistani ulema particularly so. In 1492, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, also known as King Boabdil, surrendered Spanish Granada to the Spanish Christian forces, after the Moors ruled Granada for approximately 800 years. Under the Spanish crown, Muslims were persecuted and all of them ordered to convert to Christianity; those that remained Muslims were eventually expelled. The simple take away: that the powerful majority impose their arbitrary will on the minority, regardless of the minority’s contribution and importance of the society in which they live and contribute. Globally, rule of law, human dignity and freedom of expression have curtailed whimsical subjection of people and Pakistan must catch up.
This cycle of the State being a helpless silent bystander and the people engulfed in an extremist, intolerant wave of dictatorial religious interpretations, must end. Religion, morality, and law all point to the State apparatus to awaken from this woeful negligent slumber for Pakistan’s non-Muslim girls are at stake.

(Benazir Jatoi is a barrister, working in Islamabad, whose work focuses on women and minority rights. She is a regular contributor to the op-ed pages in various Pakistani newspapers. Twitter: @BenazirJatoi)