Marriages and Conversions

The broken criminal justice system has not been able to enforce laws regarding forced conversions, writes Farhatullah Babar

Marriages and Conversions
A symposium was organised in Islamabad last week on faith based crimes against non-Muslim women, especially Hindu and Christian girls. It was a unique event because firstly that it held what it called ‘Peoples’ Inquiry into Forced Conversions’ and, secondly it gave platform to the victims’ families who narrate their ordeal of how their girls were forced to convert and married to Muslim boys. The symposium subsequently adopted a resolution urging the little known Parliamentary Committee on Protection from Forced Conversions to address the issue earnestly while calling upon all segments of society to play a role in eradicating the menace.

Forced conversion is defined as a manipulated and involuntary change of faith either under coercion, or threat of coercion or monetary or other inducements. Available data shows that the greater the vulnerabilities in terms of age, gender or social background in a locality, the greater the incidents of forced conversions.

Two features of forced conversion in Pakistan are noteworthy. First, it involves underage and dependents and second, the conversion almost instantly results in the marriage. Mostly young, pretty non-Muslim girls - and not older men or women - convert to the dominant religion. Thus converted, they end up as brides and not as sisters and daughters.

No complete data is available. According to the National (Catholic) Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) over 1,700 conversions took place during the period 2000 to 2012 - mostly Hindus (726) and Christians (605). All ‘embraced’ the faith of the majority community, i.e. Islam. According to a Birmingham University study, nearly 3,000 conversions of women and girls took place during 2012-2017 in Pakistan. A number of complaints have also been filed with the now defunct National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) against forced conversions.
The commitments made by Pakistan with the international community from time to time have also been largely ignored

There are several laws dealing with most crimes associated with forced conversions, such as kidnapping, forced and underage marriage but, broken as the criminal justice system is, they have seldom been pressed into service. The calls made by the international community have also largely been ignored - like the one made in 2013 by the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for a comprehensive legislation to end forced conversions and forced marriages.

The commitments made by Pakistan with the international community from time to time have also been largely ignored. During the third periodic review under UPR in November 2017, Pakistan agreed to enact legislation to end forced conversions but there has been no follow up. The commitments appear to have been made only under pressure. Just weeks before the review in Brussels under the GSP plus, the Pakistan Penal Code was amended and section 498-B added to it to make forced marriage of a minor and a non-Muslim woman an offence punishable with a decade-long imprisonment. The amended law is yet to be operationalized.

The ordeal narrated by the victims’ families at such public hearings as well as in cases where girls have approached high courts seeking annulment of forced conversions offer some useful insights that may be of some help to the Parliamentary Committee in analysing and addressing the issue.

The first thing that the parliamentary committee should do is to hold public hearings with the victims and their families. All other stake holders should also be invited to public these hearings and its findings and recommendations be presented before the Parliament for discussion and debate. Indeed this was one of the recommendations made at the Islamabad symposium.

Local mosques and seminaries often give certificates of conversion without any legal backing. In issuing such certificates, they make no assessment of the element of coercion, the age of the bride and the possible existence of a crime. They even offer rewards for conversions considering it a religious duty. A moratorium on certification by religious seminaries and law officers validating marriages based on faith conversions must be introduced till such time a proper legislation has been put in place.

The procedure for ascertaining that there has been no coercion also needs to be firmly laid down. The amendment made by the addition of Section 498-B to the PPC at the time of GSP plus review does not provide for such procedure.

The parliamentary committee should also examine the status of implementation of the Supreme Court verdict on June 19, 2014 with regard to the rights of non-Muslim minorities that also called for the setting up of a permanent independent and statutory Minorities’ Commission. Almost six years have passed but the Supreme Court verdict has not been implemented.

A bill was passed unanimously by the Sindh Assembly in November 2016 placing an age limit on conversions. It was not signed into law by the governor under pressure of the clergy. A way must be found to prescribe age limit in conversions, just as there are age limits for voting, driving licenses, national identity cards and school admissions etc.

Finally, there are some well-known culprits aligned with political parties who have patronized forced conversions. The political parties must publicly distance themselves from them and call for investigations and bringing them to justice.

The writer is a former senator