Special Representative of the Prime Minister on Religious Harmony and Middle East Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi has said that there is no concept of forced marriage and forced conversion in Islam, and it is the responsibility of the state to protect the rights of religious minorities.
He was speaking at Inter-Faith Conference for Young Women organised by the Inter-Faith Harmony Council and Diocese of Peshawar, Church of Pakistan, here on Thursday.
Hafiz Ashrafi said that the religious minorities should not live in fear in Pakistan as they were protected by the state.
He said that inter-faith harmony councils were being established up to the union council level across the country.
Forced conversion cases in Pakistan
The Associated Press, an American non-profit news agency headquartered in New York City, has claimed in its latest report that “each year 1,000 Pakistani girls forcibly converted to Islam”. The report does not specify as to how the data was collected and analyzed to draw such a controversial and seemingly misleading conclusion.
The report has apparently relied on another report published in 2018 by the University of Birmingham which suggested that “an estimated 1,000 women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted and then married off to their abductors every year in Pakistan”.
Notably, the University of Birmingham’s report further relied on the reports prepared and published by The Aurat Foundation and the Movement for Solidary and Peace (MSP).
None of the reports provide any clear and objective criterion on the basis of which the conclusion that each year 1,000 Pakistani girls forcibly converted to Islam has been drawn.
Love Marriages or forced conversions?
In March 2019, media reports and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claimed that two Hindu girls, named Reena and Raveena, were abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Their elder brother claimed that the girls were underage and were unable to make such decisions.
In response, the girls had approached the Islamabad High Court (IHC) along with their husbands and had sought protection because they felt threatened for their safety. In their plea, the girls confessed to willingly embracing Islam and marrying Muslim men. After a detailed inquiry into the matter, the court said the two were adult enough to make their own decisions and that they were not forced to convert.
It may be noted that Pakistan has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which Article 16 confirms the right of every woman to enter into a marriage ‘only with their free and full consent’.
The teenagers had left their home on March 20, 2019, to be married in Punjab, where the law does not bar marriages of those younger than 18, unlike Sindh.
After the conversion, Raveena changed her name to Aasiya, whereas Reena was named Nadia. Aasiya was married to a young man named Safdar Ali, while Nadia tied the knot with Barkat Ali. Both the men were already married and the girls were taken as their second wives.
Read more: One in every three women in Punjab suffered violence: UNFPA
Interestingly, after a year of conflicts, two sisters have finally reconciled with their families and the matter has now settled.
Kidnapping and forced marriages in rural Sindh
Experts and academics are of the view that the cases of conversion—reported from rural Sindh— are not generally because of the rise of religious intolerance in Pakistan. As noted in the AP’s report that “[s]ometimes they [girls from Hindu community] are taken by powerful landlords as payment for outstanding debts by their farmhand parents, and police often look the other way”. Such conversions, if thoroughly investigated, are the result of the socio-economic dynamics of the rural Sindh.
Furthermore, in Pakistan, it is almost a norm that if girls leave their homes to marry the person of their choice, the family gets an FIR registered against the boy for kidnapping the girl. The recent figures show that 300 ‘kidnapping’ cases had been reported to the police in Islamabad, Pakistan’s federal capital, which involved young girls. But in most cases – 250 to be precise – the girls eloped with their lovers to contract love marriage against the family wishes.
Read more: Karo-Kari in Sindh: How many women were killed ‘for honour’ in 2019?
According to the police record, these 300 ‘kidnapping’ cases had been registered at 22 police stations of ICT, the police data show. In 2017, as many as 110 such cases had been registered – less than half of these cases turned out to be love marriages.