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The curse of forced conversions in Pakistan

Rights activists decry failure to take action by police and judiciary as cases continue to rise

The curse of forced conversions in Pakistan

Arti Kumari is the latest victim of forced conversion in Sindh province. (Photo supplied)

Arti Kumari was abducted while going to a beauty parlor in Pakistan's southern city of Larkana. On April 9, she appeared in a Karachi court with her Muslim husband.

Her Hindu parents were barred from meeting the 22-year-old convert. “We are the indigenous people of this land. We demand to meet our daughter. Give her back. Our daughters are being kidnapped. We want justice. Save her,” said her father. Their video has garnered more than 95,000 views.

Kumari is the latest victim from a religious minority who has been forced to convert to Islam, largely to pave the way for non-consensual and underage marriages. Most of the Hindu girls in Sindh province are converted in madrasas in Daharki and Samaro.

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Some label these cases as examples of “love jihad” — the practice where Muslim men target non-Muslim women for conversion to Islam by means such as seduction and feigning love.

“There is a systematic pattern in most cases. The victim is sexually, psychologically and physically harassed as well as brainwashed for at least two weeks after abduction. The conversion certificates for targeted girls are prepared in advance. Mistakes like the incorrect father’s name are ignored,” said Chaman Lal, chief executive of Samaj Sewa Foundation Pakistan.

“Following the death threats, she reappears as a converted and married Muslim. The eyewitnesses from the majority community reject abduction claims by the victims’ families. Forced conversion is an act of terrorism by white-collar terrorists. It results in a low literacy level among Hindu females as parents stop them from going to school. The fear never ends.”

Both the police and judiciary have failed in setting an example

Lal was speaking at an April 8 talk on forced conversions in Pakistan by Amnesty International LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) Chapter, a student-led society that supports human rights.

The speakers recommended religious conversions only in front of a magistrate, mandatory medical and psychological tests as well as evaluation of Islamic knowledge of minority girls before conversion, separate shelter homes for minority victims and a ban on clerics in the courts during conversion cases. 

The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 mandates that girls cannot marry before the age of 16 and boys must be 18. However, in Sindh province, the local government raised the age to 18 for both sexes in 2014, with child marriage made a punishable offense.

In 2017, section 498-B was added to the Pakistan Penal Code to stop compelled marriages. It stipulates imprisonment of at least three years and a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$3,270). 

According to Lal, a Hindu activist, both the police and judiciary have failed in setting an example.

“However, the regional police usually delay the first information report of minority girls, sometimes even for a month. The family is threatened to withdraw the case. Sadly, the trend is increasing. The feudal lords in Sindh province harass Hindu peasants. They support politicians with the vote bank. Most abductors are released,” said Lal.

The Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) also highlighted the issue in Badal-dou-Nam (Name Without Soul), an Urdu documentary launched on April 10 during an online consultation about the growing violence and abuse of children and women.

The documentary narrates the testimonies of Christian victims of forced conversions and feedback from human rights activists, mosque preachers and health experts.

The victim undergoes traumatic events on a daily basis

According to the CSJ, 162 cases of questionable conversions of minority girls were reported in Pakistan’s media between 2013 and November 2020. More than 54 percent of victims (girls and women) belonged to the Hindu community, while 44 percent were Christians.

More than 46 percent of victims were minors, with nearly 33 percent aged 11-15, while only 17 percent of victims were above 18. Age was not mentioned in reports in more than 37 percent cases. Last year the CSJ launched an appeal to Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking public support to protect religious minorities from forced conversion.

According to Church of Pakistan Bishop Alexander John Malik of Lahore, Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Dalit who served as Pakistan’s first minister of law and labor, raised the issue in the 1950s.

“We are still struggling with it after more than seven decades. Such socioeconomic circumstances are created around her [the victim], which come under the definition of coercion,” he said.

Dr. Akhtar Ali Syed, a clinical psychologist with the Brothers of Charity in Waterford, Ireland, termed forced conversion a post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The victim undergoes traumatic events on a daily basis. Obviously, such people are dogged by mental and physical tension and by all kinds of physical ailments and are unable to lead a normal life,” he said.

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