Forced Conversion/Marriage of Minority Girls Targeted in Pakistan

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LAHORE, Pakistan, August 31, 2023 (Morning Star News) – The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Tuesday (Aug. 29) ordered the government to respond to a petition to stop courts from allowing forced conversion and marriage of minority girls in verdicts that act as covers for child rape, sources said.

Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Ayesha Malik gave the directions in response to a petition challenging the Lahore High Court’s (LHC) decision to send then-13-year-old Christian girl Nayab Gill to live with her Muslim “husband” two years ago.

Attorney Saif Ul Malook filed a petition with the Supreme Court in August 2021 against the LHC’s decision to send Nayab with 30-year-old Saddam Hayat, accused of kidnapping her and forcibly converting her to Islam, in the LHC’s rejection of her parents’ plea for custody.

“The petition was pending in the court for two years, during which the girl reunited with her family after escaping from her abductor’s captivity,” Malook said. “The court noted that though Nayab had returned home, it wanted to find a permanent solution to the issue.”

Malook said the Supreme Court ordered a reply from the government after he highlighted the evidence in Nayab’s case and questioned the discrepancy between the penal laws and Sharia (Islamic law) over the minimum marriageable age for girls.

“We brought the court’s attention to the fact that courts do not admit official birth documents and supporting evidence as proof of the victim’s age. Instead, the judges accept claims of the victims that they are of majority age and can marry off their own free will,” Malook told Morning Star News.

In Nayab’s case, the LHC dismissed her official birth documents showing she was 13, and instead accepted her claim under duress that she was 19 years old and had married Hayat, a married father of four children, after converting to Islam of her own free will in Gujranwala.

While Pakistani law recognizes intercourse with a girl below 16 years of age with or without consent as rape punishable by death, courts have repeatedly held that the marriage of an underage Muslim girl cannot be termed invalid because Islamic law holds that a consenting girl who has reached puberty can marry.

“The perpetrators forcibly convert their victims to Islam to escape punishments,” Malook said. “Therefore, it’s important to set a uniform age for marriage across Pakistan and ensure the implementation of the child marriage laws.”

The lawyer said that Nayab was not Sui Juris, that is, “in one’s own right” as an adult not under power or guardianship of another person, at the time of her alleged Islamic marriage with Hayat, and that therefore the marriage was invalid. Anyone who is no longer a minor is presumed to be Sui Juris.

“This is the first time that the Supreme Court will speak its mind on the legal age of marriage for minority girls,” Malook said. “Previously the Islamabad High Court and Federal Shariat Court have recommended fixing the marriageable age for girls, so we are hoping that the Supreme Court will give a landmark judgment on this matter.”

Rekindled Hope

The appeal’s outcome is significant in view of the serious concerns of the country’s religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, over growing incidents of forced conversion and marriages of minor girls with their Muslim abductors.

Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall said the Supreme Court decision had “rekindled hope for the protection of our young girls.”

“The police and lower judiciary are facilitating child marriages and conversions, but government officials are not willing to accept the fact that these actions are in reality a bid to cover abduction and child rape,” he told Morning Star News.

On July 14, 2021, Supreme Court Justice Mushir Alam rejected an appeal by Marshall calling for a constitutional petition to protect Christian girls from forced conversion and forced marriage. Alam said the petition was rejected because it did not address an individual case or grievance.

When Nayab’s case was brought to his attention, Marshall hired Malook to represent the family with the sole objective of drawing the Supreme Court’s attention to “this heinous crime being committed under the cover of religion,” the senior church leader told Morning Star News.

He added that the entire Pakistani Christian community was looking to the Supreme Court for protection of Christian girls.

“I appeal to Christians across the world to pray for this crucial case, especially for the judges so that they make an earnest effort to protect our little girls,” Marshall said.

Nayab’s father, Shahid Gill, and mother, Samreen, were overjoyed when they heard about the Supreme Court’s decision to address the issue.

“We praise God for appointing judges who are willing to stop these atrocities against young children,” Gill told Morning Star News. “We have suffered a lot in the last two years, but there’s now hope that Saddam [Hayat] will be punished for his crime and, more importantly, thousands of young girls will not have the same fate as our daughter.”

Gill said that Nayab had fled after Hayat was imprisoned in a case related to the abduction of his first wife.

“Nayab contacted me after she escaped from his house,” he said. “Soon after reuniting with my daughter, I decided to relocate my family to another city to protect her from Saddam and his family.”

Hayat is now free on bail and searching furiously for Nayab, he said.

“Nayab hasn’t yet been able to come out of the trauma she suffered during her captivity,” Gill said. “She has told us that Saddam and his brothers tortured her and threatened her with firearms before every court appearance, which is why she was forced to give statements favorable to them.”

Gujranwala police are pressuring him to reach a settlement with the Hayat, Gill said.

“A police team from Gujranwala went to my sister’s house in Sialkot – they kept asking about my whereabouts, but my sister and other relatives refused to divulge any detail,” he said. “Before leaving, they said that the DSP [deputy superintendent of police] wanted me to settle the issue with Saddam and his family. It’s quite obvious that Saddam is using money to influence the police to force me into reconciling, because he knows that the Supreme Court may order his arrest.”

The Supreme Court must ensure protection of his family and others facing such crimes, he said.

“Our lives are under serious threat, but under no circumstances will I ever let them take my daughter away again,” he said.

Gill lauded Marshall for supporting the family in their search for justice, saying the church leader’s intervention had bolstered their resolve to get their daughter back.

Every year, dozens of girls – mostly teenagers – from the Hindu community mainly in the southern province of Sindh, along with Christians in Punjab Province, fall victim to this practice, facilitated by Muslim leaders and groups, according to activists.

A recent report by a Lahore-based advocacy group, Center for Social Justice, stated that at least 124 incidents of forced faith conversions were reported in 2022.

Victims of these conversions included 81 Hindus, 42 Christians, and one Sikh. Shockingly, 23 percent of girls were below 14 years of age, and 36 percent of them were between the age of 14 and 18 years. Only 12 percent of the victims were adults, while the age of 28 percent of the victims was not reported.

A full 65 percent of these cases were reported in Sindh Province in 2022, followed by 33 percent in Punjab Province, and 0.8 percent each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

In October 2021, a parliamentary committee rejected an anti-forced conversion bill after the Ministry of Religious Affairs opposed the proposed law despite protests by legislators belonging to minority communities.

In 2016, Sindh Province passed a law declaring forced conversion a punishable offense carrying a life sentence, but the governor refused to ratify the legislation.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

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Article originally published by Morning Star News. Used with permission.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Chrispecoraro

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