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Minorities in Pakistan struggle against forced conversions and marriages

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The issue, which deepens when it comes to the minorities of the country, is a question mark on the state’s authority. File

As women around the world fight back sexual harassments and dominion over their lives by others, forced marriages of underage girls remains an unresolved issue in Pakistan.

While its persistence despite the government in the process of passing legislation to limit marriageable age is a question mark on the state’s authority, the issue deepens when it comes to the minorities of the country. For alongside women, the status of non-Muslims in Pakistan is also a worrying situation.

Recently, social media in Pakistan has been pleading justice for a young Christian girl who has become a victim of forced conversion as well as forced marriage.

Sadaf, belonging to a village in Bahawalpur, had been complaining at home of a local resident harassing her at school. Fearing for her life as well as her reputation, Sadaf’s parents stopped sending her for studies – the first dismal outcome of impending doom. But home was far from being safe, for one day Sadaf was kidnapped when her mother was away.

Curiously, the suspected criminals, when contacted, admitted to the crime and after apologising promised her safe return. Sadaf’s parents chose to stay back and wait, as the ploy had worked and no formal complaint was lodged.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom noted in its 2017 report that each year in Pakistan, around 1,000 girls and women from religious minorities (700 Christian and 300 Hindu) are estimated to be abducted, forcibly converted and then married off to their abductors.

Still, when Sadaf did not return, the assailants were once again contacted, at which the shocked parents were told that Sadaf had accepted Islam and was now married to the person who has been harassing her. The parents were handed over a marriage certificate with Sadaf’s thumbprint as the affirmation.

There is no evidence or certification of proof of changing religion by Sadaf. Moreover, Sadaf, a student of grade 4, would have been able to at least write her name. Instead, her thumbprint raises suspicion that it was made to appear forcibly on the paper.

The contrast between the two parties is wide; on the one hand is an affluent and influential family, having access to all areas wielding control. On the other hand, is a poor, illiterate family, with no means to provide influence. The family also belongs to a religious minority, which in Pakistan, is often subjected to charges of blasphemy and issue of forced conversion.

Early this year in Thar Parkar Sindh, a 16-year-old Hindu girl was also reported to have been “forcibly married” after her “conversion” to Islam. The Hindu community, particularly in Sindh, has many a time raised the issue of forced conversion and forced marriages threatening the community.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom noted in its 2017 report that each year in Pakistan, around 1,000 girls and women from religious minorities (700 Christian and 300 Hindu) are estimated to be abducted, forcibly converted and then married off to their abductors.

“Hindu and Christian women are particularly vulnerable to these crimes because of the societal marginalisation and lack of legal protections for religious minorities, combined with deeply patriarchal societal and cultural norms. Local police, particularly in Punjab, are often accused of being complicit in forced marriage and conversion cases failing to properly investigate them or by believing the male and his family over the female and her family. If such cases are investigated or adjudicated, reportedly the young woman or girl is often questioned in front of the man she was forced to marry, which creates pressure on her deny any coercion,” the report further states.

A research paper of University of Birmingham titled Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan published last year, states that evidence provided by NGOs, journalists and academics show that “in most cases, the victim is abducted and is then subjugated to sustained emotional and physical abuse, often involving threats of violence towards their loved ones”.

Local police, particularly in Punjab, are often accused of being complicit in forced marriage and conversion cases failing to properly investigate them or by believing the male and his family over the female and her family.

While the lack of following proper police actions and judicial procedures in such cases due to influence, limited interest and even fear result in either no or inadequate investigation and hence, judgement, the fuel to fire is also added by religious seminaries.

Some Islamic organisations, especially in rural areas, “routinely encourage the practice of converting members of minority communities by offering rewards for successful conversions. They say that it is the equivalent of Haj-e-Akbar, the greatest religious duty to Muslims”.

The scenario is not difficult to imagine in the case of Sadaf. Hers was not a case of a love-struck couple, that she would be expected to elope. On the contrary, she had been complaining of inappropriate advances which forced her parents to make her quit school.

Her age is 13 years, and given her rural background, she is not expected to be much aware of women rights, nor expected to hold much confidence or physical strength. She is vulnerable to physical abuse and can easily be coerced into complying with any decision to help save her family from ‘disgrace’ and trouble.

It is also not difficult to imagine how those responsible for converting her to Islam, would be gloating about their ‘heroic’ deed, with guarantees to self of admission to heaven.

In a recent article Forced conversions of Hindu women to Islam in Pakistan: Another Perspective, the author , Jürgen Schaflechner argues that conversions often serve as a way to conceal sexual assaults. To avoid social stigmas which are plenty in a patriarchal society, family members, in the past, have remained quiet and accepted the fate.

Also, a majority of the non-Muslim members of both the Hindu and Christian communities are illiterate and poor. Especially if they belong to the Scheduled Caste or the so-called untouchables, they would be mostly employed in bonded labour or as sweepers. Still looked down upon in Pakistan, their social status and rights remain non existent. And thus, their voices against injustice also remain unheard.

Legislations in Pakistan are plenty. Pakistan has signed and ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights as well as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, of which Article 16 confirms the right of every woman to enter into a marriage ‘only with their free and full consent’.

In 2016, Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a bill which placed an age limit upon conversions. But, the bill failed to make it into a law as it was effectively blocked by right wing religious groups and parties and consequently, returned by the then governor of the province.

However, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights approved a bill at the beginning of this year that sets the minimum legal age of marriage at 18. The draft bill is to be presented to the parliament for debate before being sent to the cabinet for approval.

If seen from a human rights point of view, the crimes against Sadaf are many. Due to growing insecurity, her right to education was suspended. Despite being a minor, she has been subjected to harassment, kidnapping and possibly verbal and physical abuse. Her allegiance to her faith has been uprooted and a new belief has been imposed to solemnise an injustice committed by another.

She is said to have been married although she is underaged. We do not know of her academic performance or her future plans, but she must have had some dreams. She must have contemplated a way for her life. But for now, her voice has been silenced and her identity robbed. Still, if given a chance, she can start afresh. In unknown whereabouts, Sadaf waits for Pakistan to come by her side.

 

 

The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs.

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OPINION

Some progress in Pakistan this week

From many perspectives, this was an eventful week for Pakistan

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As the monsoon rains lashed across the country, amid pounding inflation and protesting traders, Pakistan witnessed important developments this week. Though most incidents will have long term impacts which are expected to unfold with time, their significance at present can also be not denied.

ICJ orders consular access to Yadav, rejects Indian plea: (more…)

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OPINION

Dismays and Delights: How Pakistan fared this week?

Such is the course of time, that humans, after mourning a loss, prepare for the next outcome.

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This week in Pakistan was disappointing, to say the least. From the fiasco in the World cup match to the murder of a blogger in Islamabad, the list of dismays is long. India’s positive response to hold talks with Pakistan seemed the only silver lining in the dark clouds of dooms, yet it was quickly rebuffed by India as “fake news”.

It pains as well as amuses me that fans of cricket in Pakistan still remain die hard to their team. Its a different thing to be a cricket buff and another to be supportive of your team, for its been a while that Pakistan’s cricket team pulled a feat worth praise.

Pakistani Cricket Team captain Sarfaraz Ahmed (L), Indian Cricket Team captain Virat Kohli

One did not even need to switch on the TV or check updates on phone on the mess which Pakistan was in its World Cup match against India. The memes did the job pretty well, an area in which Pakistanis’ talent and sense of humour is worth appreciating.

Starting from the mind boggling decision of choosing to field after winning the toss, to poor bowling and miserable fielding (as usual), I can only say that the fans of Pakistani cricket team were very courageous to stick with their support through out the match. In comparison, was the highly professional and progressive Indian team, which showed true characteristics of first class cricket. It was no surprise that Pakistani cricket icon Wasim Akram showed his confidence in India as a player even before the match started.

A Pak-India interaction on a different level received an uplift, when the re-elected Prime Minister Modi of India, finally responded in positive to a series of letters written by his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L), Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Since early this year, both countries have experienced most severe ties, even reaching the brink of war. The Pulwama attack in Indian held Kashmir triggered a spate of exchanges of words as well as arms. After an informal meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Pakistan’s allowance for India to use its airspace for Prime Minister Modi for the SCO meeting of heads of states, Modi’s preference to still fly using another, alternate route while refusing to rub shoulders with Khan at the conference, the ice seemed to thaw.

However, Pakistani media’s interpretation of Modi’s written response to Khan that India had agreed to resume dialogue, was refuted by Indian foreign ministry.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar

“The letters only reiterated India’s old position that it wants normal and cooperative relations with all countries in South Asia (including Pakistan) and that it was important to create an environment free of terror and violence for it. There was no mention of any sort of dialogue with Pakistan,” responded the ministry’s spokesperson to The Times of India.

A similar exchange of letters between Pakistan’s foreign minister Qureshi and his newly appointed Indian counterpart, Jaishankar, was also explained as a mere reply. The hope of resuming of dialogues between the two countries was quashed.

So was the life of Muhammad Bilal Khan, a famous 22-year-old Pakistani blogger, who was stabbed to death in Islamabad, sparking outrage among Pakistanis.

Blogger Muhammad Bilal Khan was murdered in Islamabad

Khan was known for his critical comments on religious issues. He also spoke about the disappearance of activists and journalists. Khan’s shocking death is pertinent in the context that he had a following of thousands on Twitter, YouTube as well as Facebook. Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari has assured of investigation by the government.

Perhaps, a not so highlighted and the lone positive news one could find was the approval of the initial draft of the Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Bill 2019 by a Parliamentary body. The bill has recommendations for rigorous imprisonment until death for the sexual assault and murder of children.

Photo Credit: AFP

The recommendations are now to be discussed by the National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights. Once passed by parliament, the bill will pave way for the setting up of Zainab Alert, Response and Recovery Agency (ZARRA), where missing child cases will be reported to generate an automatic alert. It will also introduce a response and recovery mechanism for missing children.

A draft of the ICT Rights of Persons with Disability Bill has also been approved with recommendations concerning the registration of people with disabilities, reforms to address their grievances and procedures to address their complaints.

While unexplained deaths and disappearances of activists remains a worrying issue, some decision making for missing and abused children as well as disabled persons is a progress in the human rights of country.

Other sectors are eagerly looked upon for some positive news. The nation’s favourite sports of cricket comes back at the turn of the week with anticipation.

The week, which started miserably with Pakistan’s loss against India in the World Cup match, has ended with hopes and fears for the next contest between Pakistan and South Africa. Such is the course of time, that humans, after mourning a loss, prepare for the next outcome. A comeback by Pakistan in the World Cup could raise hopes for optimism in the week that is to begin.

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OPINION

Hunza Valley: A case of educational enlightenment

Educational initiatives that have enlightened Hunza’s local communities are exemplary for others

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The Hunza Valley in Pakistan is known for its breathtaking beauty, lofty mountains, lakes, historical forts and fruit orchards. But equally enthralling are the educational initiatives that have enlightened Hunza’s local communities and are exemplary for others.

Hunza is a mountainous valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. Situated in the extreme northern part of the country, Hunza borders with the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. Hunza was an independent principality for more than 900 years, until the British gained control of it and the neighbouring valley of Nagar between 1889 and 1891 through a military conquest. The former princely state survived until 1974, when it was finally dissolved by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The centuries old history of the area is reflected in its rich cultural heritage and ethnic diversity. With mass migrations, conflicts and resettling of tribes, people of the region joyfully recount their historical traditions. They are also famous for the longevity of their lives.

But another trait which makes the people of Hunza distinct from the rest of the country, is its high literacy rate. While the literacy rate of the country is slightly above 50 percent, which in many rural areas is even lesser, the literacy rate in Hunza is believed to be nearly 80 percent, with some claiming it to be even more than 90 percent. What is the reason that a far flung, remote area perched at the top of the highest mountainous regions of the continent has been so successful in educating its people?

The evolution of education in Hunza valley was initiated in the year 1912 when the government of British India founded a primary school in Hunza state. But a major role has been played by the Ismaili Muslims, who make up nearly 90 percent of Hunza’s population.

In 1946, seventeen Diamond Jubilee Schools were established under the guidance and funding provided by Aga Khan III, the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims. Aga Khan Education Service played an important role in improving quality of education by arranging teachers training programs. Aga Khan Academies opened in Hunza which were later upgraded to Aga Khan Higher Secondary School for girls, with well trained teachers qualified from foreign universities. Locals also established community schools in late 1990s. Karakoram International University and its campus in Hunza provides quality education to students and degrees with scope of local and international markets, e.g. Tourism and Management.

Some unique initiatives include Al-Amyn Model School and Hassegawa Memorial Public School which are funded by Japan. These schools help re-establish the broken link between school and home. Here parents and grandparents are invited to share their wisdom with the younger generation. Parents come to know that their knowledge is not obsolete and that the younger generation can benefit from it.

Public schools are also opened by the Government of Pakistan which play a vital role in providing quality education to both boys and girls,
Being educated not only means to know how to read, write, think, or even being able to conjure new ideas, but having a cultured sense of oneself and the surrounding. In this sense, apart from being educated, the minds of people in Hunza are liberated from dogmas, and they encourage gender equality and critical thinking, which has led to the development of its pluralistic society.

Women have become an integral part of the local economy, including those who weave Hunza’s famous handicrafts. Both girls and boys study music in music schools established by USAID and Aga Khan Cultural and Support Program (AKCSP).

The world famous female mountaineer Samina Baig, international cricket player Diana Baig, female atheletes, models and singers are a depiction of gender equality and freedom from stereotypes. Although some of the remote mountainous regions of northern and northwestern Pakistan have been scarred by militant fundamentalism and terrorism, Hunza has largely avoided such associations, and the crime rate is extremely low.

Perhaps, this is why renowned international publications Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine have termed Hunza as a “success story for moderate Islam…. Once a hard Himalayan town where resident barely had enough food, Karimabad, in the Hunza Valley, is now one of Pakistan’s most idyllic spots and has become an oasis of tolerance, security, and good schools.”

Thus, an educational enlightenment including cultural, moral, social and economic progress of the community as well as the inculcation of deep respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, has helped eliminate poverty, and the promotion and implementation of secular pluralism and the advancement of the status of women in Hunza Valley.

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