At a small, nondescript house-cum-legal aid organisation in Youhanabad, one of Lahore’s largest Christian neighbourhoods, Sidra Javed, 19, quietly tucks a loose strand of hair into her flame-coloured hijab.
“On October 10, 2016,” she begins, “I was babysitting my six younger siblings when I received a message on mama’s mobile phone.” It was Muhammad Atif, the landlord’s son, who had been messaging Sidra – on the phone her mother left behind in case of an emergency – and threatening her for two weeks.
“Run away with me or see what I do to your father and eight-year-old brother,” read the last message.
Sidra slipped out of the door of her quarters in Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, and saw Atif in the darkening dusk. With a gun to her head, Sidra sat behind him on his motorbike, and was driven to a house on the outskirts of Lahore in which she was sexually assaulted. Then she was taken to a law office, where she was told to convert, followed by signing a nikah nama or Islamic marriage certificate. “The lawyer, Maulvi Sahab, and others there did not ask for my birth certificate or ID card. I told them I’m Christian, the daughter of a pastor, and I wouldn’t want to convert — the four or five men there were furious to hear that, and I was scared. When they asked me to recite the First Kalima, I did,” Sidra says.
Sidra was able to escape after two months of marriage. But of the 1,000 Christian and Hindu women forcibly converted to Islam and forcibly married in Pakistan each year, seven hundred of them Christian, according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council (PHC), few are as fortunate.
A 2014 report by the Movement of Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan says forced conversion and marriage begets further violence as victims are subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking or sale, or domestic abuse. With the National Assembly passing the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016 earlier in February, however, amendments to laws suggesting punishment for forced marriage of minors and/or women from minorities are on the horizon.
When there is doubt about whether an individual has been forcibly converted and married, a conversion certificate becomes the trump card
But how much of a difference will it make? Joseph Francis, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), a legal aid organisation focusing on the rights of Pakistan’s minorities, says it’s not easy to prove forced conversions or marriages.
A forced conversion is when physical, emotional, or psychological pressure, force, or threat is used to make an individual adopt another religion. A forced marriage is when one of the parties does not consent to marry the other or one of them is under duress or threat. Francis, however, says when forced conversions and marriages go hand in hand – a forced conversion driven by a perceived religious obligation, taking cover behind marriage, or a forced marriage driven by lust, taking cover under conversion – it allows for and creates legal loopholes.
It’s just such a loophole that Ali Raza, 23, exploited in kidnapping Monika, 12. Raza and Monika’s father Alfred Gharib Dass, 52, were security guards at St Thomas High School in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat, where both lived with their families. On August 11, 2016, Alfred dropped his elder daughter to work, and came home to find Monika missing. He filed a First Information Report (FIR) at the Liaquatabad police station; four days later, an investigation officer told him Raza had converted Monika to Islam and married her. Monika was a minor under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, according to which girls cannot marry before 16, and Raza had broken the law by marrying a 12-year-old girl.
What may have been an open-and-shut case found legal cover under Monika’s conversion. “A lot of times, a legitimate birth certificate is not taken as seriously as a forged conversion certificate [which depicts a minor as older than 18],” Francis told the Herald. And in situations where an individual is not a minor, it is even easier to allege a forced conversion and marriage were really voluntary. When there is doubt about whether an individual has been forcibly converted and married, a conversion certificate becomes the trump card.
From the forced marriage to the registration of the FIR by the girl’s family to the courtroom, a conversion certificate is what overrides marriage laws. Whether it’s Section 365-B of the Pakistan Penal Code which delegitimises a marriage under duress or force, or the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, or the Christian Marriage Act of 1872 under which a married Christian woman forced to marry a Muslim remains married to her Christian husband; Islamic institutions, law enforcement, and the judiciary are, by and large, biased towards a Muslim who has converted a non-Muslim, according to the Movement of Solidarity and Peace’s 2014 report, or they are under the pressure of religious and other lobbies.
"Men like to witness the success of a conversion and marriage, often perceived as a religious victory."
Ayra Indreas, who teaches Women’s Studies at Kinnaird College in Lahore, says, “Last year, there was a case where a Christian girl, her new Muslim husband and a lot of influential Muslim men, big cars and Kalashnikovs in tow, came to the court. And the Christian girl’s family was fearful, poor, few in number, standing on the other side of the room. I know the judge was under a lot of pressure.” Men like to witness the success of a conversion and marriage, often perceived as a religious victory, she told the Herald.
Law enforcement agencies like one’s local police station, are a mixed bag of sorts. According to Sidra’s father, Javed Masih, 45, filing an FIR at the Badami Bagh police station was slow and painstaking. “We believe investigation officers were bought out by the boy’s father, our landlord, because our neighbours told us the officers and the boy’s father were friendly.”
However, Monika’s mother Shazia Bibi told the Herald the Liaquatabad police station at which Alfred, her husband, filed an FIR not only raided Raza’s home but were infallibly supportive throughout her case, at least until Alfred dropped the FIR itself.
“You have to keep in mind the theory of ‘triple oppression’; you’re female, you’re a minority, and you’re from a low-income background, and the intersectionality of the three will force Christian girls into the most vulnerable positions."
Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Operations Haider Ashraf admits abductions or forced marriages happen. But, he adds, “I’m not privy to forced conversions, and I don’t believe Christian girls are abducted or forcibly married any more than Muslim ones. Seasoned, senior investigative police officers record statements of abducted or forcibly married girls, and are able to gauge their accuracy. Between statements recorded by police and judiciary, I don’t believe these girls are under duress — all of this is rumour-mongering, we are an open and free society.”
Where it all begins, however, is with the Muslim clerics and/or institutions where a forced conversion and marriage is contracted. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, member of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), says a forced conversion is not permissible in Islam. Yet, he says, “If someone comes to me, and wants to be a Muslim, I’ll look at the background but I won’t turn her away.” Not even if she’s a minor.
Ashrafi and others pressured Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari recently, asking him to strike down the passed Sindh Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill, 2015, meant to protect non-Muslim girls from forced conversion before the age of 18. “Why must someone have to turn 18 before accepting Islam? You should not have an age limit for conversion,” says Ashrafi.
Aside from pressure on institutions like law enforcement and the judiciary, a forced conversion and marriage case will often fall flat because the Christian girl – who is in the custody of the husband – will say she was not forced to convert and marry but did so voluntarily. Executive Director at the Center for Social Justice, Peter Jacob, says, “An element of coercion and duress must be taken into account.”
Although the Punjab government, in particular, has Darul Aman women’s shelters where a Christian girl may reside during the span of a trial, many times it will result in more duress for the girl. Sidra, who stayed at a shelter with links to the legal aid organisation handling her case, says, “I didn’t like staying at the shelter because I worried about my family. I worry more about them than I do about myself. I’m scared of what my husband may do.”
Muddying the waters further is the question of what happens if and when the Christian woman who is forcibly converted and married happens to already be married to a Christian man under the Christian Marriage Act. In Pakistan, separate personal laws, including marriage laws, are in place for Muslims and non-Muslims. What if a Christian girl wants to marry a Muslim? If she’s already married under the Christian Marriage Act, she is not allowed to re-marry anyone else. If she is unmarried, the Christian Marriage Act will still apply in an interfaith marriage. How does a Muslim man who wants to force a Christian woman to marry him circumvent this without breaking the law? It’s as simple as forcing her to convert to Islam, after which a marriage contracted under personal laws for non-Muslims will be overridden by a nikah nama.
From the forced marriage to the registration of the FIR by the girl’s family to the courtroom, a conversion certificate is what overrides marriage laws.
Mary Gill, a lawyer and member of the provincial assembly of Punjab, says, “Not one political party is ready to address the issue of forced conversion and marriage. It’s not a priority in manifestos, or for the government — not even for their pro-women policies. It’s something they believe they can’t take on. Sindh had the courage to legislate on this issue but religious parties opposed it vociferously. At the end of the day, we need political will.”
Parliamentary ministers, such as the federal and provincial ministers of human rights – both Christian – do not hold themselves accountable to the Christian community, Bishop Emeritus Alexander John Malik tells the Herald. “Our representatives aren’t accountable to the constituencies. When I say, ‘You are not doing anything for Christians,’ they say ‘Who are you, Bishop? We are not accountable to you; we are accountable to our political party.’”
Jacob says the need of the hour is a law like the Sindh Assembly’s bill which not only tackles forced marriage as does the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016 but also looks at the forced conversions under which forced marriages take cover. “This is a situation that is specific to Pakistan. These women and their families do not have the socio-economic or political influence to limit the abuse against them,” he tells Herald. Indreas agrees. “Whenever you speak of minority women,” she says, “You have to keep in mind the theory of ‘triple oppression’; you’re female, you’re a minority, and you’re from a low-income background, and the intersectionality of the three will force Christian girls into the most vulnerable positions. Our social norms override our legal protections.”
(In March, the National Assembly passed the Hindu Marriage Bill 2016, following amendments made by the Senate, in order to prohibit the marriage of Hindu minors under 18 and regulate Hindu marriages. Tabled before the house by Minister of Human Rights, Kamran Michael, the bill will need the signature of President Mamnoon Hussain in order to become a law.)
But for Shazia Bibi, 12-year-old Monika’s mother, the pain is unrelenting. Two months after Monika’s abduction, Shazia’s husband Alfred told his lawyer and his wife that he could not go through his suffering and dropped the case and the FIR. Less than 10 days later, Alfred had a fatal heart attack. Holding a grainy, fading photograph of a long-haired, kohl-rimmed girl whose dark stare bores into one’s soul, Shazia says, “She was my offspring. I kept her in my womb for nine months. Then I gave birth to her, and raised her with so much love — my heart is broken, and only I know how much.”
The writer is a freelance journalist and founding CEO of Pershe Saeeda