Pakistan is a country where a song that makes no sense, or a video clip of an untoward incident goes viral within a few minutes, but thousands of tweets, hundreds of articles, dozens of demonstrations, public appeals, and letters to prevent the menace of forced conversions fail to grab the attention of decision-makers. Our political leaders and the government representatives turn deaf ears to what minorities have to suffer under the guise of faith conversions. This is because our government is in denial about the existence of forced faith conversions in Pakistan.
Forced conversions are a serious human rights violation and they severely restricts the right to religious freedom. Those who think that making minorities adopt a religion by force will honor them with some kind of prestigious reward in the afterlife are misled.
Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai spoke against forced conversions in Pakistan and said “it should be a personal choice and no one, especially a child shouldn’t be forced to accept any faith or convert to any other religion out of the will”.
Our government claims to be committed to ensuring the equality of citizenship, rights, and opportunities in the country, but simultaneously they also use the religious card for political gains. The government does not want to risk losing its conservative vote bank. They believe that any legal action against groups involved in faith conversions may lead to instigating religio-political groups to stage countrywide protests. Furthermore, legal and administrative safeguards, may present its image as a progressive or moderate government rather than an Islamic government, which the government likes to maintain. That’s why the government didn’t give due consideration to international standards of human rights and religious freedom to pass and enact a law against forced conversions, instead, it resorted to Islamic traditions to prevent the bill in this regard.
As we live in a country where songs are more heard as compared to the voices of victims of forced conversions. British singer Adele’s song “Hello do You Hear me? I’m Calling from the other side” perfectly illustrates the state of minorities in Pakistan. Minorities are on the other side of Pakistan that’s why our government is unable to hear them. We openly talk about business, economy, election, and politics but we do not discuss the fallout of the forced conversions that victims and their families have to face.
Forced conversion is a threat to the religious diversity existing in the country. One example of our threatened diversity is the Kalash community that has reduced to approximately 3,800 people only.
It is mostly Hindu and Christian girls from lower castes and poor families that are targeted for forced conversions. This is some sort of fanaticism that results in hatred and misery. According to Bertrand Russell, a fanatic tries to impose his own ideas on others and tries to convert people to his point of view. If people are not converted to his beliefs, a fanatic uses force that results in hatred and bloodshed in society.
Although Pakistan does not have a law to deal with allegations of forced conversions, the non-consideration of the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill, 2021 for further deliberation and amendments by the parliamentary committee is a denial of the protection of minority rights.
The non-consideration of a legislation against forced conversions is the failure of the legislature, while the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators against their criminal offenses under the pretense of faith conversions and child marriages is the failure of the law and justice system of the country.
A couple of questions arise here: Firstly, if there is no existence of forced conversions in Pakistan, then why is our government afraid to pass the bill?
Secondly, how many more cases are required by the government to pay heed to the unheard voices of minorities, and to introduce legislation to stop imperil of forced conversions?
Since the government has failed to take any substantial measures to stop the practice of forced conversions, it continues unabated in Pakistan. The lack of legal action against perpetrators and their abettors enables the abuse to occur at the cost of human rights and rule of law in Pakistan. The government needs to realize that running from addressing the problem of forced conversions will not showcase Pakistan as a human rights friendly country in the international community.
Forced conversions involve crimes such as; early marriage, forced marriage, sexual violence and abductions. These crimes have made minorities vulnerable, as most of the court verdicts go in favor of the perpetrators or purported husbands of the underage girls from the minority communities. Judgements rely on the interpretation of sharia laws rather than laws of the land. This emboldens the perpetrators and leaves the parents with no other choice except to stay away from their daughters.
Pakistan is under obligation to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whose Article 18 requires states to ensure that everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. Most importantly, no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
The Pakistani government has been rejecting national and international reports on the abysmal situation of religious freedom in Pakistan and terming them as “rubbish and baseless”. It is lamentable that our government has failed to introduce its narrative on forced conversions, and it tends to adopt the narrative endorsed by the religious groups. The government needs to enforce its writ and make independent decisions to protect the human rights of the citizens of Pakistan.
The Federal Shariat Court has issued a ruling that setting a legal minimum age for marriage by a government in an Islamic state is not an un-Islamic act, which lays the ground to do away with the marriages of children under 18 years of age in Pakistan. Therefore, the government needs to move bills in the federal and provincial legislative assemblies to amend the Child Marriage Restraint laws to ensure that the marriage of underage children is declared null and void, and the minimum age for marriage is set at 18 years for both boys and girls.
It is high time for the government to accept its failure in fulfilling its duty to protect minorities rights. The government should make serious efforts to enact a law against forced conversions in conformity with human rights standards. We must ensure that underage girls belonging to minority communities do not become prey to predators.