Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Mr Ejaz Alam Augustine sat with Ali Warsi to share his insights on Pakistan’s forced conversions problem. He argues that ‘it is blown up as an issue of kidnappings by some but that isn’t the case. We need legislation to prevent underage marriages. That is the only remedy’.
At least one thousand young girls are forcefully converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. And even these numbers are from 2014. There’s no latest data available online or with the ministry of Human Rights and Minority Affairs of Punjab.
Punjab’s provincial minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine believes that the numbers are unauthentic and grossly misrepresented. “The data available is based on the number of police cases registered annually while many such cases are not even reported to the police”, he said on Monday.
In an interview with Naya Daur, the minister discussed in detail one of the most urgent challenges faced by the minorities in Pakistan today i.e., forced conversions of girls belonging to minorities, and how they can be stopped.
Ali Warsi: At least one thousand Hindu and Christian women in Pakistan are forcefully converted to Islam every year. Do you think the numbers are correct?
Ejaz Alam Augustine: The NGOs collect the data on the basis of the number of FIRs registered with the police. And what happens with the FIR? A kidnapping report is registered. Then the girl appears before the magistrate and states that she was never kidnapped and hadn’t been forced to embrace Islam. She tells them she is an adult and embracing Islam of her own accord. The law goes silent after this.
The clause 100(a) of our constitution makes it clear that no one can be forced to embrace any religion. So we can raise the issue of underage marriage but even on that front there’s a lot of legislation that needs to be done.
For example when a minor girl embraces Islam, her case is adjudicated on the basis of Islamic law and under Islamic law, 12-year-old girl is considered an adult.
According to Islamic law, when a girl starts menstruating, she is ready to be married. So the things are quite ambiguous here. It is the duty of the legislators to bring clarity on the subject.
Ali Warsi: Recently, a bill was passed by the national assembly setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 years. The question though is how do we implement the law?
Ejaz Alam Augustine: There are two aspects about this legislation that we need to focus. First, they’ve set the minimum age for marriage at 18 years but in another province the minimum age is 16 years. Here too we have ambiguity. There has to be a uniform age set throughout the country.
Secondly, the problem is with the implementation. Sindh Assembly had set the minimum age for marriage at 18 but most number of cases are surfacing in Sindh these days.
Moreover, I believe that if someone converts to Islam, there should at least be some minimum time frame set before they can get married. In my opinion, we use religion for our pleasure. Have you ever seen someone converting a woman to Islam and declaring her his sister, or mother, or a niece?
So we want to work with the religious scholars and Islamic Ideology Council to work out a solution for this problem.
Ali Warsi: What does the Christian law or Bible say about this?
Ejaz Alam Augustine: Christian law too sets a minimum age criterion. Bible discusses this topic. And according to our scholars, the minimum age should be around 17-18 years. Old Testament mentions marriages and there’s no instance of a minor being married off.
Religious scholars also believe that a minimum age should be set. All we need is sitting together and reaching a consensus.
As far as Christian law is concerned, it is applicable only till the point the girl embraces Islam. Once she converts from Christianity, Islamic law takes over.
Ali Warsi: Do you think it is more of a women rights’ issue than a minority rights’ issue? Because we often see that a girl gets reportedly kidnapped, embraces Islam, and gets married to a Muslim man. So do you think that religion and forced conversions are being used as a cover for another crime?Initially, the police were refusing to register the case. We made them register it. The girl was presented before the court where she clearly stated that she had embraced Islam of her own accord, and was never kidnapped.
We told the court that the girl was a minor but the parents had no Form-B or any other evidence to prove her a minor. All they had was a community school certificate which wasn’t admissible in the court of law.
We demanded a medical board to be constituted and the court allowed it too. However, the issue here is that law doesn’t allow medicolegal test unless the person is willing to take the test. The girl refused to take the test. So here’s another deadlock.
As far as kidnapping is concerned, I believe there are hardly any kidnappings involved here. Young boys and girls become friends with each other through mobile phones and social media. Then they get involved with each other and eventually the girls flee with them.
The parents do not have a remedy for this problem. Police also register kidnapping cases that get quashed as soon as the girl appears before the court rejecting the claim made in the FIR. Only yesterday, a similar case was registered in Lahore’s Nishtar Town area.
Ejaz Alam Augustine: The real problem is that no one gets kidnapped. I keep a very close eye on these cases. I have recently returned from Rahim Yar Khan. There were two Hindu girls, aged around 13 years. One was Sangeeta and the other one Lakshmi. Then there is a girl named Sadaf from Bahawalpur.
It is blown up as an issue of kidnappings by some but that isn’t the case. We need legislation to prevent underage marriages. That is the only remedy.
Ali Warsi: Do you have a message for our readers and viewers regarding minority affairs?
Ejaz Alam Augustine: I believe that civil society should come forward. While parents should educate their children, civil society should also arrange workshops to provide awareness to the youth about their rights, what’s good for them and what’s not. Most children fall into such traps because of a lack of awareness.