Around a 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year, the Aurat Foundation stated in a report issued on Monday evening.
The report was released in the presence of Aurat Foundation resident director and senior journalist Mahnaz Rahman, Sindh Assembly deputy speaker Shehla Raza and senior journalists Ali Ahmed Khan and Zofeen T Ebrahim.
According to report, forced conversion is where any person or persons use any sort of pressure, force, duress or threat, whether physical, emotional or psychological, to make another person adopt another religion. The lack of informed and voluntary consent is a vital ingredient in such situations.
It is common that such means are used not just on the victim himself or herself but also can also be used or threatened to be used on the victim’s family, loved ones or community.
There are different methods used to force people to convert. In Pakistan, two common forms include through marriage and bonded labour. There are several other methods used to forcefully convert people.
With the growing intolerance in Pakistani society of religious minorities, evidenced by the increased violence, murder and persecution of religious minorities in the country, forced conversions have emerged as a disturbing trend. There are numerous methods employed of forced conversion which include use of force and threat, communal violence, bonded labour and other exploitative forms of employment etc. One of the methods is forced conversion through marriage i.e. forcing non-Muslim girls and women to marry Muslim boys and men and change their religion due to their marriage, and it has stood out with increasing incidence being reported.
According to reports, approximately a 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam every year. Predominantly the victims are girls from the Christian and Hindu communities.
There is no doubt that there are a number of genuine cases of conversion of non-Muslim women, who convert and marry Muslim men. It is also a fact that the woman’s community has been known to react badly to the woman’s conversion and made accusations of forced conversion which are not true. However, this does not mean that forced conversions do not happen and the number of reports evidence indisputable proof that this is an extremely worrying and increasing occurrence.
There are a number of common factors that have emerged in numerous cases of forced conversion through marriage which play a major role in granting a certain amount of impunity for these forced conversions through marriage. The common factors are as follows:
1. Girls from religious minorities are incited or abducted, converted to Islam, and married to the abductor or third party without their informed and voluntary consent.
2. In many cases, these girls are children i.e. below the age of 18 years.
3. The victim’s family files an FIR against the abduction.
4. The abductor may sometimes file a counter-FIR, accusing the girl’s family of harassing the girl who has’ willfully’ converted.
5. The victim girl is asked to testify before a magistrate whether she converted and married of her own free will.
6. The girl mostly remains in custody of the abductor during such proceedings.
7. In most cases, the girl testifies that she willfully converted and consented to the marriage, the case is closed.
8. Once a girl states that she married of her own will, there is no further investigation etc. However, reports and statements of girls who have escaped from such situations, there are a number of factors which influence this “favourable testimony”. These include:
a. Reluctance of the police to register or investigate crimes; issues in recording of registration etc; public pressure on police to provide evidence or omit evidence to help the abductor etc; the lack of adequate resources, protection or capacity to be able to function effectively; and lack of effective mechanisms to identify police bias or review their decisions etc.
b. Intimidation or threats to the victim. Often abductors file FIRs against the victim’s family, claiming harassment. Statements given by victims are often under duress and force. With the girls in the custody of the accused, there are reports of abuse, intimidation, threats to the victims and their family and community, violence etc. Left in such vulnerable, exploitative positions, they feel they have no other choice as they would face further abuse rather than ‘be responsible’ for the abuse or violence against their families.
c. Threats to the victim regarding her ‘reconversion to her original religion’. Victims are told time and again that they are now Muslim and if they try to continue practicing their original religion, they will be considered apostates, the punishment for which is death. Therefore, stating that it better that she remain with the abductors etc
d. Custody of victim remains with the abductor. In many of the cases, the victim remains in the custody of the alleged perpetrator, including during the trial process. This allows unlimited access to the victim, allowing perpetrators to ‘ensure’ she gives a favourable testimony.
e. Discrimination and bias within the judiciary. The pressures of the conservative right and religious extremists influence the judges who may interpret and apply the laws selectively and unequally. The role of the judges and police bias must also be examined, providing harsh punishments if they do not fulfill their duty. If they are found to have acted out of bias, then they should be liable as abettors of the crime and liable for punishment for it.
f. There is often a lack of protection to the relevant parties, particularly those from minority communities, the victim, her family, her lawyer, her community and even the investigating officer and the judge. This has an impact on the entire trial and the chances of a fair trial.
g. The courtrooms where such cases are fixed also face great pressure in such cases. Often the courtrooms are full of people chanting slogans in favour of such conversions. At times people celebrate the ‘conversion’ of the victim outside the courtrooms by firing gunshots in th air outside the court building. This not only intimidates the victims giving evidence but puts severe pressure on the judges and lawyers acting in such cases. The victim is made to testify and confirm whether she has truly converted to Islam in this hostile environment Furthermore, once considered converted, they are unable to revert to their original religion as changing their religion from Islam to another is considered apostasy, for which the punishment is death. The commonality of the incidence creates awareness of an emerging need to understand and put into place new methods of dealing with such cases in order to eliminate this abhorrent practice.
Law to curb conversions
There are a number of different provisions of different legislations that touch upon different aspects of cases of forced conversion. These include laws relating to forced marriage, child marriage, compelling or inducing a woman to marry, abduction and kidnapping, bonded labour and threat and intimidation.
These laws include the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, Section 498B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 against forced marriage, sections 375 and 376 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 against rape, XVI-A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 to deal with wrongful confinement and restraint, Section 365B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 for kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage etc, Section 361 of the Pakistan Penal Code deals with kidnapping or abducting from lawful guardianship and Section 364A of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 for kidnapping or abducting a person under the age of 14.
However, there is no law that specifically identifies and criminalises forced conversions as a specific criminal offence with a corresponding punishment.
Forced conversions are a specific crime with a specific mens rea i.e. intention but different types of actus reus i.e. actions. While the existing laws may touch upon different aspects which may be relevant to different incidents of forced conversions, there is no law which actively covers the core component of these crimes.
The main ingredient of forced conversions is the intention to force another to adopt a new religion without their informed and voluntary consent. The means and methods employed to do so may fall under different provisions of law, but due to the increase in incidence of forced conversions, there has emerged a need to provide for a specific provision criminalising this practice.
One of the major issues that have arisen in cases of forced conversion is the manner and methods used during investigation and trial of cases of forced conversion
Furthermore, the lack of standardised processes has led to the discretion of how such cases are dealt with to individual judges without appropriate checks and balances as to the judge’s biases being evident in his or her judgment. This also leads to discrepancies between different cases and different types of treatment of victims.
Thus, there is also a need for specific procedural mechanisms to ensure the investigation and trial of cases of forced conversion, provide the adequate protection and support to victims.
It is essential to have a law in place which not only introduces the forced conversions as a criminal offence with penalties into the law, but it must also cover the different categories of relevant forms of offences within the definition and ensure the liability of the perpetrators for all forms of violence, discrimination and exploitation.