Rehana Riasat holds up a photo of her daughter Shizam at a madrassa in Gujranwala city of Pakistan's Punjab province on May 11. The Christian mother claims the teenager was abducted from their home in the dead of night earlier this year by one of her Muslim schoolteachers, and then forced to convert to Islam and marry one of the teacher's relatives. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Rehana Riasat, 47, was asleep at home with her children in Gujranwala city of Pakistan's Punjab province one night in February when she was awoken by the sound of someone knocking loudly on her door at around 2 a.m.
"Your guests have arrived, they shouted," the Christian mother told ucanews.com.
Assuming a friend or relative had dropped by to pass on their condolences for a recently deceased relative, she got up to let them in.
"Suddenly, five people rushed into my room, including two women. One of them was the teacher of my 15-year-old daughter, Shizam," Rehana recalled.
"They pulled my girl inside a white van that was waiting in the street. I screamed and tried to stop them, but they fled," she added.
Rehana said her daughter had previously been making house calls to the female teacher, who was a Muslim, which she assumed had been purely for the purpose of enhancing the teenager's academic studies.
However, it later appeared the teacher had more sinister motives for welcoming Shizam into her home.
"They tricked my innocent child," a distraught Rehana wailed.
That night, Feb. 11, turned her whole world upside down.
Up until that point, life had been hard enough for this mother of six as she struggled to take care of her low-income family in Gujranwala while her husband, Riasat Masih, worked as a laborer 70 kilometers away in Lahore.
The family filed a police report and reached out to local village elders in a desperate bid to find out where the abductors had taken their teenage daughter, and why, but to little avail.
Masih quit his job and returned home to pursue the case.
It wasn't until a Christian activist submitted a petition at the Lahore High Court in April to recover the missing ninth grader that any headway was made.
"We produced all the necessary documents to prove she was underage. We even paid the police a bribe of 40,000 rupees (US$570) to help us. However, the local medical board declared her legally mature based on some dental tests to calculate her age," Masih said, trying to stifle his tears.
"Eight days later we learned she had embraced Islam at a local madrassa and married her teacher's nephew," he sobbed.
"We saw some photos of her taken using a smartphone, and she looked almost unconscious sitting there amid all the praying clerics," he said.
"I saw her twice during the court hearings, but I was never allowed to talk to her — my own daughter."
Masih and his wife were one of three Christian couples who shared similar stories of forced religious conversions and marriages involving their offspring on May 11 at a hotel in Lahore.
The People's Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) organized the program to raise awareness of this social scourge, in a bid to protect more young girls who belong to minority religions or ethnic groups from being manipulated and exploited by Muslims in the country.
Riasat Masih and his wife share the story of their abducted daughter, Shizam Riasat, as part of the PCMR program at Faletti's Hotel in Lahore on May 11. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Silence of the Lamb
A recent research report by the PCMR titled "Silence of the Lamb" shone a greater light on this issue. Prominent human rights activists, legal experts, journalists, and academics attended its launch event.
It reported that 79 women aged 13-35 were forcibly converted to Islam and married to Muslim men between 2013 and 2019 in Pakistan — or 13 a year on average — mainly in Sindh and Punjab provinces.
That number includes 37 Christians, 31 Hindus, one Sikh, and several girls and women from ancient tribes in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province such as the Kalashiya.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), only five other countries see more children abducted and forcibly married than Pakistan. Once they have converted to Islam, the religion affords their spouse and relatives-in-law the legal protection to conduct this controversial practice.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) claims that in 2018 in Sindh province alone, around 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls got married under the legal age of 18.
Most of the minors are married against their will. Even those who fall in love with their Muslim spouses generally fail to win much respect from their in-laws. Despite converting to Islam, they are often referred to as "churha" (low caste) — a derogatory term in both Pakistan that is often hurled at Christians who do menial jobs like sweeping the streets.
"At present, forced conversions are too easily — and too often — disguised as voluntary conversions, leaving female minors especially vulnerable," the commission stated in a press release in March.
"The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem, and that should concern ‘mainstream' [Muslim] Pakistan."
It was issued after two Hindu sisters in Ghotki city of Sindh province were allegedly abducted and converted forcibly to Islam. Both girls were minors.
The Islamabad High Court declared in April that it was within the law for girls to convert to Islam and stay with their husbands. It also ordered the interior minister to ensure the adopted families of the two girls were protected from any legal action issued by their Hindu parents.
While it is illegal to marry underage girls, the abductors often find a way around this by paying for forged medical reports to "prove" the girls are older.
Several Pakistani judges have in the past prohibited girls who have converted to Islam from being returned to their "infidel" parents.
Badar Munir, a Muslim cleric from the Peace and Education Foundation (PEF), a nongovernmental organization based in Islamabad, described this as "a disease that has infected the whole of our society."
Trampling on the law
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 mandates that girls cannot marry before the age of 16 and boys must be 18 or older. However in Sindh province, the local government raised the age to 18 for both sexes in 2014, with child marriage made a punishable offense.
On Nov. 22, 2016, that same province amended its laws again to make forced conversions to Islam a crime. Anyone found guilty of changing the religion of a minor could now face from five years to life behind bars, while anyone else who helped facilitate the crime could either be imprisoned or forced to pay compensation to the victim.
To circumvent this, Muslims who abduct minors for the purposes of child marriage often relocate to other provinces, where they file petitions with a local court seeking legal protection by claiming the girls accepted Islam of their own free will and were mature enough to decide for themselves.
In April, the Senate passed the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill 2018, which stipulates that no one under the age of 18 can legally get married anywhere in Pakistan.
Those who violate this law would be subject to up to three years in jail and/or a fine of at least 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US$706).
However, the bill failed to win approval from the National Assembly after a majority of ministers decided it was inconsistent with Shariah, which declares people can wed whenever they feel ready, financially and emotionally, to do so.
Aoun Sahi, an investigative journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for covering a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that claimed 14 lives and injured 24 people one year earlier, said poverty and religious discrimination are the driving forces behind most religious conversions to Islam in Pakistan.
"Islamic extremists who can't go to Kashmir to make jihad against India, or fight on behalf of Palestine against Israel, try to convert girls to Islam to earn their ticket to paradise," he said.
"But biased members of the media are reluctant to cover these stories. Despite there having been a number of judicial inquiries into such cases, the police tend to view [conversions] as a good deed, and don't press charges," he added.
Sahi said most of the girls who convert are illiterate and come from the bottom rungs of society.
Suddenly they are showered with attention and grand ceremonies, hailed as positive role models by their adopted families, and made to feel important.
"The festivities can last for months," he said. "They are taken on tours of different mosques and shown off like trophies. Meanwhile, clerics at the madrassas give the newlyweds enough money to cover a month's rent to help them get started."
HRCP council member Hina Jilani expressed concern at the systematic nature of what critics call religious-based exploitation of the underclass.
"The impunity and lack of accountability adds to the pressure on religious minorities, who are exploited because they are so vulnerable," she said.
"There is a natural inclination and collective will to increase the size of the Muslim population in Pakistan. But this doesn't serve Islam or our country."