It was not long ago when the world was celebrating Jacinda Arden on how she handled the Christchurch attack. Like the rest of the world, she was hailed as a heroine by Pakistanis too, who were overjoyed to witness a white woman leader donning a headscarf, quoting Prophet Muhammad, declaring Islam as a peaceful religion and uniting in solidarity with the Muslim minority in New Zealand over the horrid terrorist attack.
Following an interesting turn of events, not long after the Christchurch incident Pakistan was presented with an opportunity of its own to demonstrate the spirit of diversity, acceptance and empathy like New Zealand and Jacinda Ardern’s in the form of the case of forceful conversions and marriage of two underage Hindu girls from Gotki, Sindh. However, this is not where Ardern fandom will flourish.
In 1947, Pakistan and India were formed after a long battle of ideologies (see: the two-nation theory). It was established that Muslims and Hindus cannot survive together anymore (after previously living together for centuries, ironically) and therefore, need to have their own separate countries. 67 years after, both the countries seem to have not moved on from that juncture and continue to have similar issues. Be it the Hindu minority in Pakistan or the Muslim community in India, time and again, both have to prove their loyalty towards their respective countries.
According to the their family, the two girls were forcibly converted to Islam and married off to already married men.
The most recent examples of this are two 13 and 15-year-old Hindu sisters, Reena and Raveena from Pakistan’s province of Sindh. According to the girls’ family, the two were forcibly converted to Islam and married off to already married men on 20th March. However, as reported by various media outlets, the two girls are neither underaged nor forcibly converted to Islam or married – they fell in love with these men and eloped with them according to their own free will and also converted to Islam to be married legally to their lovers. A video circulated on social media featuring two burqa-clad girls testifies the same.
However, this case raises various red flags. In the past as well, there have been numerous cases of forced conversions to Islam and young girls being married to Muslim men. A similar case took place in 2009 in Punjab where a 15-year-old girl, Gajri was forcibly converted and married to a Muslim man – amongst various other cases of a similar pattern.
Human rights activist from Sindh, Seema finds this ironic. While talking to FII, she said, “It’s kind of funny to note that only young, impressionable girls between the ages of 10-16 are ‘impressed’ by the teaches of Islam and decide to run away from homes and convert. We do not see men or even adult women from the Hindu community do the same. This pattern suggests that there is something false with the narrative and it needs to be investigated deeper.” Seema also points out that in a country where children under 18-years cannot vote, are not eligible for driving licenses, or cannot even purchase a mobile SIM, allowing the marriage of those who are under 18 and especially considering the conversion of religion as a plausible justification is almost weaponisation of religion.
Chaman Lal, Chairperson FAITH, says that this issue has been prevalent since the last 40 years in the country, however, it is only recently that due to social media these issues are being brought to the mainstream society. While labelling the perpetrators of these conversions as “white collar terrorists who use religion as a shield to hide their ugly, ulterior motives”, Lal says that such incidents terrorise the entire community and create great barriers for not only girls from the Hindu community but also boys, in terms of education and career opportunities. He also states that these incidents are deliberate efforts to oppress an already marginalised community so that they cannot escape the cycle and question their oppressors.
The issue of forced conversions is not only oppressing the Hindu community in transparent manners by instilling fear but also acts in a systemic manner. It strips these young Hindu women of their agency and creates great barriers in their educational endeavours. The fear of forced conversions also gives way to the issue of early marriages in the community. This vicious cycle ensures that Hindu women are not ever empowered enough. It ensures that they do not get educated, careers, about their rights and the power to fight back, rather they are married off young, uneducated, poor and underprivileged; therefore, planting a system that oppresses this community, particularly women and making sure that they cannot escape it.
The issue of forced conversions strips these young Hindu women of their agency and creates great barriers in their educational endeavours.
Rachna, women’s rights activist and researcher at Wish Foundation tells FII that the plight of forced conversions is not just about religious tug-of-war and systemic oppression of the Hindu community in Pakistan but also about gender violence that these young girls face. “They (young girls) are subjected to severe gender violence. , they are abducted and sexually violated by powerful men with political influences who record them being harassed and then blackmail them into either converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men or to extend sexual favours against their will.” Rachna also pointed out the inefficient role of police authorities and the loopholes in the judicial system that facilitates the oppressors and makes it difficult for the victims to take legal action.
A human rights activist, on the condition of anonymity, told FII how the conversion of Hindu girls is used as a political tool as well. They said, “This issue spreads beyond educational barriers and fears of harassment and forced conversions. It is forcing Hindu families to migrate from Pakistan to India because they fear for their lives and dignities. They are told that they belong to India as Indian muslims are told that they belong to Pakistan.” They also added that when these Hindu families migrate, they leave behind their properties and resources which are then acquired by land mafias; therefore, the issues of forced conversions have other, underlying aspects to it as well. Naming Ayub Jan Sirhindi and Mian Mitho of Barchundi Sharif shrine as prominent players in this situation, they told FII that such forces have religious and political affluences to terrorise and oppress the Hindu community and there is not much that is being done to stop them.
Though Pakistan has an often-ignored law that bans child marriage, there is yet no such legislation in place to curb forced marriages. Jibran Nasir, the human rights activist and lawyer from Pakistan, believes that the resolution of the issue of forced conversions in Pakistan in the judiciary alone. He states that in a democratic state (especially one that is an Islamic republic), people cannot be asked to give up practising their religion, neither can they be told to not preach it. He tells FII, “If someone wants to convert to Islam by will, there should be a proper, legal system in place to facilitate that and to ensure that it is done out of and not due to other pressures. A magistrate should be required to carry out the conversion and not only a .” By doing this, the practice of forced conversions can be halted to a great extent.
Three days before the creation of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah or as Pakistanis fondly call him, Quaid-e-Azam (the great leader), said in his speech, “You are free. You are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Perhaps it’s time for Pakistanis to bring the vision of their Quaid to life by putting an end to the persecution and systemic oppression of religious minorities in the country and giving them their long-due rights.
Featured Image Source: The Conversation