Illustration by Rohail Safdar
Illustration by Rohail Safdar

The recently-passed bill against forced conversions in the Sindh Assembly is an important step for the rights of Pakistan’s non-Muslims in general — and Sindh’s Hindu community in particular. In its current shape, the bill aims to prevent minors from changing their religion without their parents’ consent and gives a 21-day period to adults for reconsidering their decision to convert.

Incidents of ‘forced conversion’ are not a new phenomenon and women from the underprivileged class have been subjected to it for decades. The disappearance of a middle-class girl, Rinkle Kumari, in 2012, saw the issue become a matter of public concern. Kumari’s alleged forceful conversion to Islam and the involvement of former Pakistan Peoples Party lawmaker Mian Abdul Haq alias Mian Mitho, sparked wide interest and caused an uproar in the media.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding Kumari’s disappearance also revealed how incidents of forced conversion contain many layers of complexity. Sindh’s feudal structures, for example, have proved to play an important role in such cases. Furthermore, the political and street pressure of the religious right has demonstrated its ability to stifle the clearing up of these incidents. The biggest challenge in the abolition of forced conversion, however, will be coming from the non-Muslim communities’ very own patriarchal environments, where notions of honour oblige women to accept their elders’ decisions, with regards to choosing a spouse. Some cases turn out to be desperate attempts by family members to frame their ‘deviant’ daughters’ free-will marriage as an act of abduction or forced conversion, in order to avoid social stigma.

This ‘rebellious female’ agency is an important part of the forced-conversion narrative, which so far has been ignored by both the right wing and the liberal media, who often opt for a simple savage-victim dichotomy. It remains to be seen if the implementation of such a law will be able to tackle the myriad aspects of the forced conversion phenomena — which are located at the nexus of feudalism, religion, honour and the restriction of female agency.

This article was originally published in the Herald's December 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is assistant professor at the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg.