Rebranding Forced Conversions As Love Marriages

Rebranding Forced Conversions As Love Marriages
After failing to adopt legislative measures against the forced conversions of non-Muslim girls, followed by marriages, the government has now launched a program to rebrand such conversions to Islam as voluntary. This move is in response to deflect criticism of its failure as false propaganda and to alleviate international pressure.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, which is currently governed by the Islamist political party Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUI-F), held the first event in its program titled “Religious Conversions: Issues, Controversies, and Reality” in Islamabad on January 31 2023. At that time, the world was scrutinising Pakistan’s human rights record at the 42nd session of the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Just two weeks prior to the event, six UN Special Rapporteurs and members of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls had sent a joint letter to Pakistan, urging it to end forced conversions and child marriages.

Through its Twitter handle, the Ministry gave the impression that the country-wide program involved all stakeholders and religious communities in a consultation to “address negative propaganda found at national and international levels.” However, instead of holding an open and inclusive forum, the Ministry excluded key stakeholders such as civil society organisations working on forced conversions, women’s rights activists, lawmakers, non-Muslim women and girls who have been exploited, and the families of young non-Muslim women who were murdered for rejecting advances.

The event staged only one Sikh, one Hindu and several Muslim speakers, with Abdul Haq, commonly known as Mitthu Mian who presides over the infamous Bharchundi Shareef Dargah known for facilitating conversions and marriages, serving as the chair. There was no representation from the Christian community on the stage.

The Christian community in Pakistan, comprising just 1.23% of the country’s population of 240 million, where 96% identify as Muslim, is the second-largest minority after Hindus, who make up about 2%. Both marginalised communities have long been protesting against harassment, the forced conversion of young girls as young as 12 followed by marriage to much older Muslim men, and in some cases, killings of the girls for refusing such predatory advances.

“The event was a whitewash of the real issue. They showed one girl and three Muslim convert men who praised Islam and discredited their Christian and Hindu beliefs, giving the impression that conversions were voluntary and not just limited to non-Muslim women,” said Waheed Javed, a Christian lawyer who attended the event. “I was the only Christian allowed to speak after we raised the concern with the organisers.”

When a Muslim convert insulted his former Christian belief in front of the Federal Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, Mufti Abdul Shakoor JUI-F, and others, Christians in the audience stood up, shouting “Stop Religious Terrorism,” and walked out of the event, as shown in the video of event, available with the scribe.

In Pakistan, non-Muslims are often pressured to convert to Islam and subjected to offensive comments and insults about their beliefs. Christians are frequently told that their Bible has been altered, and Hindus are mocked for worshipping idols instead of a single true deity. Additionally, strict state laws punish Ahmadis for any expression similar to Islamic faith.

At the same time, strict blasphemy laws prohibit negative remarks about Islam. In the past, there have been numerous incidents of arson attacks on minority neighbourhoods, as well as lynchings and burnings of non-Muslims over mere accusations of insulting Islam. As a result, minorities avoid arguments about their religions being ridiculed for fear of being killed by a mob or imprisoned by the state.

Despite the difficult situation in the country, Javed challenged the organisers of a program who claimed to have a database of 700 conversions and marriages of non-Muslim girls. He questioned why only young girls were said to understand Islam, and why there wasn’t a similar understanding among elderly and young men from non-Muslim communities. The event also did not address the fact that if freedom of marriage and conversion exists, why does marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women often result in communal violence.

A report titled “Stories of Resilience and Resolve: An Intersectional Study on the Plight of Non-Muslim Women and Girls in Pakistan,” published by The South Asia Collective, highlighted that non-Muslim women’s faiths were being mocked in an effort to make them feel inferior and convince them to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim man.

During an interview with the Friday Times, Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Interfaith Religious Harmony, who was part of the event, praised the ministry for organising the program. He stated, “I objected when one convert spoke negatively about his former Hindu faith.” However, in a later statement to the Urdu press, he asserted that love marriages between Muslim men and non-Muslim convert women were often referred to as forced conversions and forced marriages.

“Minority women were not represented at the event who are the main stakeholers,” according to Ms Naumana Suleman, head of the Minority Women Forum. She stated that no activists or groups from civil society working on the issue and lawmakers who had been involved in the effort to pass legislation prohibiting forced conversion had been invited. She said by doing so, the ministry had disregarded all of the dissenting quarters.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) criticised the government for organising the event that “featured not only Mian Mitthu, a cleric long associated with forced conversions in Sindh, but also made a point of asking recent converts to publicly denounce their original faith” The Joint Action Committee for People’s Rights, a coalition of non-government organisations, has written letters to the Prime Minister and other national forums, calling for a thorough investigation into the incident at the government-sponsored program.

Pakistan’s failed efforts for legislation to counter forced conversions

Pakistan has committed to international agreements against forced conversion and child marriage but has faced opposition from conservative religious, political parties for taking legislative measures. For example, in 2019, the National Assembly Member, Mr Naveed Amir Jeeva, tabled a bill named “Prohibition of Forced Religious Conversion Act 2019”, but it was not considered by the assembly. The bill included a definition of “force”, “conversion”, and also allurement to clarify the subject.

Attempts to pass a bill against forced conversions in the Sindh Assembly in 2016 and 2019 were unsuccessful. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) also failed to pass a bill in the Punjab Assembly in 2017. In 2019, a Senate Committee was formed by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan to address the issue of forced conversions and underage marriages. The committee found that the two were interrelated though rejected the element of “force”, it recommended an administrative approach based on collected data. In 2021, Jeeva again presented a bill in the National Assembly but faced opposition from the same Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony which launched this event and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

After failing to convince lawmakers and conservative political parties to legislate against forced conversions, the state is now suppressing dissenting voices. This is because compliance with international treaties brings financial and other benefits, such as Pakistan’s approximately $7.5 billion annual earnings from the European market through its GSP Plus status, which requires adherence to 27 international covenants. To protect this status, the government is limiting the activities of non-government organisations that raise concerns about non-compliance. Recently, the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) faced government opposition for reporting such issues to the United Nations Security Council, where Pakistan was defending its human rights record.

Misunderstood forced conversions

According to the latest Global Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan 145 out of 146 states, with only one country having worse gender parity, in 2002. Mary James Gill, former Punjab Assembly member and Director of the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ), stated that the overall situation for women was alarming, while religious minorities believe that many Muslim men have a fascination with non-Muslim girls as young as 12 because they are more vulnerable.

Each year, hundreds of non-Muslim women are lured into marriages and forced conversions, which typically last from a few days to a few years. According to Gill, who spoke with TFT, Hindus and Sikhs are so fearful that they do not send their daughters to school and often marry them off at a young age.

According to Gill, there must be conversions and voluntary interfaith marriages, but the ministry is only emphasising that there is no forced conversion in Islam, while ignoring the marriages of minor non-Muslim girls and the forced conversion of women, particularly in the case of Christians. Islamic jurisprudence does not require their conversion for marriage in such interfaith marriages, Gill explained. She added that conversion helps to sever the girl’s ties with her family, mobilise Muslims to stand against the beleaguered minority the girl belongs to, influence the sentiment of Muslim police officers, coerce the judiciary to not return the girl to her parents, and ultimately abandon the girl with no social or legal consequences. The government, by labelling these marriages as love marriages, is safeguarding predators and permitting them to exploit Islam for their abusive tactics, Gill concluded.

There have been at least two incidents where the girls were killed for refusing to convert and marry a Muslim man. In a tragic event in April 2018, a Muslim man named Muhammad Rizwan burned his Christian girlfriend, Asma Yaqoob (24), to death. Asma had refused to convert to Islam and told Muhammad that she could only marry him if he converted to Christianity or else they could not meet any further. Another similar incident took place in March 2022 in Gotki, the district from where Mitthu Mian hails, a Hindu girl named Pooja Kumari (18) was shot and killed by a Muslim man named Wahid Bux Lashari for refusing to convert to Islam and marry him. On February 1, the next day of the event, Muslim neighbor of 19-year-old Sunita Munawar, a medical nurse, residing in Karachi, has thrown acid on her for rejecting his advances. Gill says that incidents of violence also occur against Muslim girls and women. “However, perpetrating such violence is easier due to their non-Muslim, disadvantaged backgrounds, as law enforcement agencies often align with Muslims, providing impunity.”

As a rights lawyer, Gill pointed out that these cases of elopement of minor girls should be registered as cases of enticement rather than abduction, as they are more difficult to prove in police investigations and court proceedings. “This is the reason government is now proving its case on the abduction charged filed by families.”