Pakistan is perhaps one of the only countries in the world that has a place for minorities on its flag. Yet over the years, the government has demonstrated a rocky relationship with religious minorities. Minorities face various forms of oppression and abuse involving forced conversions and marriages of under-aged girls.
An estimated 1000 Hindu and Christian girls and women (between the ages of 12-25) are forcibly converted to Islam every year in Pakistan. The girls are abducted, subjected to sexual violence, and forced to convert to Islam and marry Muslim men. In order to avoid police investigation and court trials, the girls are coerced and blackmailed into claiming that they consented to the marriage.
The most recent example of this is a 13-year-old Christian girl, Arzoo Raja, who was abducted and forcibly converted and married to a 44-year-old man. Arzoo’s father filed an FIR on 13th October after she was kidnapped from her house. The police later discovered that Arzoo had been married to Syed Ali Azhar, who presented a marriage certificate and a free-will affidavit two days after her abduction, claiming that Arzoo is 18-years-old. He also said Arzoo agreed to convert to Islam of her own free will to marry him. Arzoo’s parents, however, have shown a national identity (NADRA) certificate and a baptism certificate as evidence of her current age. The certificate shows her date of birth as July 31st, 2007.
Arzoo’s parents challenged the legality of her marriage and filed an application under rules 5, 8, 9, and 10 of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Rules 2016, Section 6 of the Child Marriages Restraint Act 2013, and Section 100 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. But, Sindh High Court (Provincial High Court) ruled in favor of the marriage through an application of the Sharia law that allows underage marriages.
As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, citizens of Pakistan have the right to practice freedom of religion including the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be coerced to change their religion. The declaration also states that marriage should be entered into with free and full consent of intended spouses.
The default legal system of Pakistan, which is discriminatory towards women from religious minorities, provides men with the leverage to coerce women from minority backgrounds. Once the women have converted to Islam, they cannot go back to their faith because apostasy would mean a death sentence.
According to Muslim personal law, a person can enter into a marriage contract after puberty even if he/she is under 18. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 says puberty is on completion of 16 years (female) and 18 years (male). If there are no signs of puberty, this sets the permitted age to 16 for girls and 18 in the Child Marriage Act nationwide. According to the child marriage Restraint Act 1929, only promotion, permission, or solemnization of child marriage is a criminal offense. It does not declare a child marriage void. This is often the reason why perpetrators are pardoned, making it a legislative and judicial issue. Hence, child marriage perpetrators may be punished but their marriage is still valid.
Religious minorities make up about 4% of Pakistan’s population of 200 million. Yet there are no official marriage laws for them besides the Hindu marriage act of 2017. The absence of marriage laws for minorities has led to a myriad of other issues. For instance, minority women cannot claim property rights after their husband’s death, if they do not display marriage registration papers. This increases their vulnerability to forced conversions and marriages. If they prove their marriage status then the forced marriage is invalid as bigamy is unlawful in minority marriage laws.
Public outrage over Arzoo’s case and demands for her safe return to her family did not for once, fall on deaf ears. Members of the regional and federal governments are on their toes and have condemned the Courts’ earlier ruling.
On the Arzoo case, today judge has ordered the girl be recovered by police & relevant agencies & be shifted to a shelter home. next hearing fixed for Thursday morning. My lawyer has informed court that an intervener will be filed on my behalf.
— Shireen Mazari (@ShireenMazari1) November 2, 2020
The Sindh High Court ordered police to recover Arzoo and move her to a shelter home as of now. The next hearing is supposed to be today – November 5th – and prior to the hearing Arzoo will undergo medical testing to determine her age.
Whilst we wait for a positive development in Arzoo’s case and hope that justice is served, this is yet another reminder of Pakistan’s failure to protect its non-Muslim citizens and the discrepancies in the governance and legal system. Minorities are already vulnerable to extremist attacks in the country. Lack of protection and safety for non-Muslim women and girls sends the gruesome message that perhaps, they are a lesser citizen.