By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Pakistan, Nov 4 2020 – October 13 began like any other day at the Lal house as Raja Lal and his wife Rita Raja left for work at 7:30 am.
“I made the usual breakfast of anda paratha (egg and flat bread) and told my eldest to lock the door from inside,” Raja, who works as an ayah in a school, told IPS. Their 13-year old daughter, the youngest of their four children, did not go to school that day as her school shoes no longer fit and her parents hadn’t bought her a new pair yet.
Little did they know that that day was the beginning of a nightmare for the Lal household. Their daughter would then allegedly be “abducted, forcefully converted and married in just one day”, Lal, a Christian, told IPS.
“My other two daughters saw [her] leave the house and thought she had taken the dog out at around 9:00 am,” narrated Raja. “But when she still hadn’t returned an hour later, they got anxious and called nearby relatives. They looked everywhere and then called us.”
Lal went to the police to report his daughter missing. According to Raja, “they did nothing” and two days later they handed Lal his daughter’s marriage certificate.
In a video shared over social media, the teenager claimed she converted to Islam of her free will and consented to marriage to her 44-year-old Muslim neighbour Azhar Ali.
Forced conversion of young girls has been going on for decades, Safina Javed, Vice President Pakistan Minority Rights Commission, Sindh chapter, told IPS. “Every year nearly a thousand young girls are forcefully coerced or lured to convert to Islam,” she said.
“The minorities feel very insecure because the religious extremists have made these conversions their business and see it as a path to heaven,” she said.
Javed wants a law that can control this practice.
An anti-conversion law was first tabled in the Sindh Assembly back in 2016 but was rejected. A second attempt of the same bill with amendments was brought forward in 2019 after a surge in conversion of Hindu girls was reported in various districts of Sindh. It was rejected again.
Maliha Lari, a lawyer and rights activist, told IPS the bill was “scrapped” as parliamentarians started to receive threats and religious parties launched protests, pressurising the government to repeal it. They contended that the bill was against the basic principles of Islam as there could not be an age limit on converting to Islam.
Saroop Ijaz, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch Asia, told IPS societal attitudes and institutional responses and encouragement enables this practice to continue with impunity.
“It is an unhappy mix of socio-economic marginalisation, misogyny and religious intolerance. The victims are girls belonging to poor households and the conversion in most cases is followed by a forced marriage with a man who has greater socio-economic power,” he explained.
Lal took the matter to the courts where his daughter and Azhar Ali were summoned. The judge accepted the girl’s statement that she was 18 and had consented to the marriage. Documents were submitted to show her age to be 18. The judge allowed the 13-year-old to leave with her husband.
“She is just 13 and we have given proof,” said her mother, claiming the other side had produced fake documents in court. According to the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013, marriage of any child under the age of eighteen is a criminal offence.
The case stirred a public outcry. Consequently, forced to review its decision, the court ordered the girl to be moved to a women’s shelter in Karachi while her age is being determined through medical investigation. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 5.
Ijaz was not surprised by the initial court order to allow the girl to remain with her husband. “The response of the criminal justice system at all three levels of investigation, prosecution and adjudication oscillates between indifference and complicity,” he said, adding that it was this impunity that was leading to more cases.
The Lal’s lawyer, Jibran Nasir, hoped for a more “proactive approach” from the court. “I hope the evidence of the child’s age as given in her school records and more importantly with the government’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) should be enough to prove her age,” he told IPS. Determining that she is a minor will declare the marriage void.
For Lari, “it’s black and white” and there are three laws under which the complainants can get relief: abduction of children below the age of 14, child marriage and rape (if there has been intercourse).
“Those involved should be charged with either abduction if she was abducted or incitement for purposes of illicit intercourse,” she told IPS, adding: “The law says the age of marriage is 18 and she is 13; everyone involved should be punished.”
“The court should declare a minor cannot be considered to have changed her religion and protection for the girl and a long-term plan for where the child should be placed should be discussed and planned out and re-visited regularly,” Lari concluded.
However, Justice Majida Rizvi, former judge of the Sindh High Court who now heads the Sindh Human Rights Commission, told IPS that things are not so simple.
“[While] we have two parallel laws, the Shariah law and the secular law, one allows marriage at 16 for girls or when she attains puberty, the other at 18, there will always be a problem,” said Rizvi. On top of that, she added, the constitution says “all laws have to be in accordance with the Shariah”.
This is precisely why Ijaz hopes this case “results in an honest public conversation on the issue followed by a comprehensive reform of the system.”
For this, he said, the government and the state machinery have to inspire confidence for the victim to fight this battle. “In the past high profile examples, victims have had to back down because of the unequal power relations between the victims and perpetrators,” he said.
Local rights activist Tahira Abdullah told IPS that the reason for increased incidences of forced conversions of young girls from minority communities was because the police and judiciary were “neither sensitive enough nor courageous enough to withstand the visible and invisible pressure exerted by the religio-political groups/gangs who perpetuate these crimes:.
“Thus, there is an increasing impunity from prosecution for the following multiple crimes against minority girls: abduction, forced conversion to Islam, faked documents (eg. birth certificates), forced marriage of a legal minor usually to a much older Muslim man, and, most heinous, rape – under the false guise of ‘conjugal sexual relations,’” Abdullah said.
Meanwhile, many of the experts IPS spoke to feel this case may not come to a conclusion anytime soon. For now, her father finds solace in the fact that his daughter is away from her abductor.
“At least she is safe,” said Lal, speaking to IPS inside the residential premises of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the seat of the Church of Pakistan, where Pastor Ghazala Shafiq, the only woman ordained pastor in Karachi, has provided refuge to the Lals. “These people are powerful and we are poor but we have received much support from the church,” said Raja, looking around the new abode gratefully.
“Azhar’s side had come to us with as many as 15 to 20 women accompanied by their menfolk and asked for reconciliation,” said Raja. She added that they threatened the Lal family if they didn’t acquiesce.
“They are definitely not safe there!” concluded Shafiq, who spent a night in the Lal home. “They were continuously getting threats from the abductor’s side.”