By Bina Shah
26 December 2016
WHEN the Sindh Assembly passed the law against forced conversion, it was hailed as a landmark piece of legislation for the protection of Sindh’s minorities. In rural Sindh, Hindu girls and women are sometimes forced by local landlords and petty thugs to ‘convert’ to Islam and get married (pretty much a euphemism for kidnapping and rape). Their families complain they have no legal recourse for registering, let alone prosecuting, these crimes.
On the other hand, there are Hindu girls and women who decide to marry a Muslim and convert of their own free choice. Their angry parents will register an FIR and file a case of kidnapping against the groom and his family. Women in these circumstances place advertisements in local newspapers declaring they have converted and married of their own free will.
In both cases, the rights of the girls and women get trampled on by families, by authorities and by criminals. In the first instance, criminals use physical force and intimidation to harm vulnerable minorities and under-aged children; in the second, a woman’s right to choose her religion and her marriage is endangered by her own family. Both cases are egregious violations of the rights of female Pakistani citizens, and there has been no legal way to protect them so far.
Hindu women need a law that gives them extra protection.
The law against forced conversion is a good attempt to halt the first case scenario by criminalising forced conversions, and providing protection to its victims. It declares that people under the age of 18 could not be registered as having converted until they reached the age of majority — this to bring conversions in line with the legal age of marriage in Sindh (also 18).
There are also fines and prison sentences for those who force another person to convert and for those who aid or abet such a marriage. Quick registration of complaints (which would drag on for months if not years previously, with Hindu families often dismissed or discouraged from approaching the authorities because of their second-class status as minorities), and protection of victims in shelters are also included in the bill.
But, as soon as the bill was passed, religious parties protested. How can you restrict the age of someone who wants to convert of their own free will? How can you restrict the age of marriage when religion only requires that people have attained puberty and their guardians or families allow it? Islam doesn’t allow for forced conversion in the first place, so why should there be a law against such conversion?
A forced conversion followed by a prompt marriage may be frowned upon in Islam but was, until now, technically legal in Pakistan. The actors in such cases will intimidate and pressure the woman and her family into saying that the conversion and marriage was ‘free will’ rather than forced. Ironically, these kinds of admissions are made with a gun pointing at your head or the head of your loved ones.
Forced conversions are enacted upon the vulnerable Hindu girls of Sindh so that the criminals who kidnap them can obtain a piece of paper to get another piece of paper — the Nikahnama, or marriage certificate. This is then used as ‘evidence’ that they have enacted a legal marriage, not kidnapping and rape.
The Hindu girls and women of Sindh are minorities twice over — Hindus and women — and need a law that gives them extra protection against a legal system and a social system that is heavily weighed against their safety and their rights.
The law can be made clearer to illustrate this circumstance. Anyone can be free to convert at any age, but the conversion would only be registered legally once the convert is 18 years of age. Any marriage to a convert should be precluded by a six-month waiting period in which authorities investigate whether it is of the woman’s free choice, similar to marriages in the West investigated for being genuine, rather than just a piece of paper to obtain a visa or a green card.
There are many things not allowed or discouraged in Islam but they still happen in Pakistan. Forced conversion is one of them. Religious parties should be the first in line to say that they vow to protect the rights of minority converts, and will not support conversions or marriages under duress. They should be the first to want to keep the reputation of Muslims in Pakistan high, rather than wanting to use every legal loophole available to take advantage of vulnerable girls and women.
Pressure from these groups has caused the Sindh government to agree to ‘review’ the bill, but they will probably demand it to be repealed entirely. Yet the Sindh government must stand firm, as the Punjab government stood firm on the Women’s Protection Bill. Muslims we may be, but our consciences are not enough to prevent these crimes.
Bina Shah is an author.