India, Pakistan battle conversion of women for marriage

Conversion of Hindu women to Islam and their marriage to Muslim men is sought to be made illegal in India whereas in Pakistan conversion of minority Hindu and Christian women is being questioned

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Biswajeet Banerjee & Lubna Jerar Naqvi

Forced conversion of women appears to be a concern in both India and Pakistan. In India it is the conversion of women from the majority community that is making people restive while in Pakistan activists and lawyers are increasingly questioning the conversion of women from minority communities.

Civil society activists in Pakistan are questioning such conversion, pointing out that most of the women hail from poorer families and are given no choice. Courts in Pakistan say they are helpless in the absence of suitable laws and because most of the converted women, when produced in court, claim to be happy.

Civil society activists in India cite the right of individuals to change their faith and point to the Special Marriage Act, which allows inter-faith marriages. Indian courts have weighed in favour of interfaith couples but in Pakistan even sympathetic courts have steered clear of the contentious issue.

Barely three per cent of Pakistan’s population happen to be Hindus or Christians, almost in equal number. But in India, Muslims constitute 15 per cent of the population. In both countries, the number of interfaith marriages and conversion is minuscule but are causing disproportionate social upheaval.

Conversion of Hindu women to Islam and their marriage to Muslim men is sought to be made illegal in India by so-called anti-love jihad ordinances and laws whereas in Pakistan conversion of minority Hindu and Christian women is being questioned. Cases of Hindu men in India and Muslim men in Pakistan converting to marry are virtually unknown.

While in India, couples are allowed to marry under the Special Marriage Act and follow their respective faiths, in Pakistan the the women, in the absence of any such law, have no option but to convert. Says M. Shoaib Ashraf, an advocate at the Pakistan Supreme Court and human rights activist, “Islam does not allow conversions for getting married. This is considered exploitation of religion. One has to convert for the love of the religion and not for any other reason.”

In India, however, delivering the historic judgement in Hadiya and Shefin Jahan case, Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud said: “The choice of a partner, whether within or outside marriage, lies within the exclusive domain of each individual. Intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy, which is inviolable. The absolute right of an individual to choose a life partner is not in the least affected by matters of faith.

“The Constitution guarantees to each individual the right freely to practise, profess and propagate religion…the Constitution exists for believers as well as for agnostics…Matters of dress and of food, of ideas and ideologies, of love and partnership are within the central aspects of identity…Society has no role to play in determining our choice of partners.”

The Lahore High Court too, while hearing the case of a 14-year-old girl who had converted, ruled that religion was a matter of conviction and the court could not adjudicate.

In both the countries, there have been cases in which subterfuge and allurements were used. Shamshad and Asif, from Meerut and Budaun, posed as Amit Gurjar and Rajkumar respectively to lure Priya and Neha. Both the women were killed when the truth came out.

But Muskan (Pinki) who married Rashid in Dehradun in July 2020 after informing the Superintendent of Police, Dehradun, as required by Uttarakhand’s Freedom of Religion Act 2018, was arrested with her husband when they visited Moradabad. Muskan was pregnant and she alleged that she lost her baby during police beating.

In the last two months, 86 persons have been booked in 16 first information reports (FIRs) since the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, was notified in Uttar Pradesh. Out of the 86 people booked, 79 are Muslims and all of them are booked under similar offences—enticing a woman and forcing her to convert to Islam.

In one case, 26 people, including five women, were booked in Etah for allegedly forcibly converting a 21-year-old woman. In Mau, 16 people were booked under one FIR whereas in Sitapur, 14 were booked in one FIR.

In Pakistan, “in the absence of legislation explicitly banning and criminalizing forced conversion, affected families (mainly young Hindu and Christian girls’ parents/ guardians) have to use laws against kidnapping/abduction, forced marriage, child marriage and rape of minors to penalize the offender,” says Tahira Abdullah, a social activist.

Shoaib Ashraf points out that if the victim says she converted of her own will, there is little that courts can do. “If a girl from a poor family converts to marry a man from a more affluent background, there is no way of knowing if she converted to marry out of love or if she was given incentives of a better lifestyle, although this should also in a way be considered an unlawful thing and some form of coercion,” he adds.

Jibran Nasir, advocate, lead campaigner at Never Forget Pakistan and trustee of Elaj Trust, says: “Young girls are kidnapped and converted and video messages are made in which they say they are happy. We argue in court that the girl does not need to be screaming or shouting to consider it as forced. If an underage girl gets into a consensual sexual relationship, it is still a crime. This forced conversion is also a crime.” According to data provided by the Center for Social Justice, Pakistan, between 2013 and 2020 the highest number of cases of alleged forced conversions were reported from Punjab (52%) and Sindh (44%).

“A clause on forced conversion, inserted into a draft law by Hindu legislators, was actually removed before enactment in Sindh province and it has repeatedly failed enactment in the national Parliament, despite clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP),” Tahira Abdullah points out.

In Pakistan, on the insistence of the family, courts can send the victim to a darul aman (place of safety) to give them time and space to think things over.

(Biswajeet Banerjee is senior journalist based in Lucknow, India. Lubna Jerar is a freelance Journalist based in Lahore. The views expressed are that of the authors and not that of National Herald)

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