In Pakistan, freedom of religion exists but only on paper because the number of incidents affecting religious minorities continues to rise like anything. Just take the case of Sana Shahid, a thirteen year old Christian girl that was abducted last year in November by some Muslim men.
Sana Shahid was targeted for abduction just because she was a member of a Christian family living in a Muslim majority neighborhood in Sialkot. Later, she emerged back into the scene with a Muslim identity and married to one of her kidnappers.
The issue of forceful abductions of religious minority women is quite high in Punjab province. Girls belonging to Christian and Hindu minorities get kidnapped on a daily basis and forced to embrace Islam and undergo non consensual marriages. This fact is proven by civil society reporting on the matter, last year’s report by Pakistani NGO Aurat Foundation highlighted that annually 1,000 girls are forced to convert to Islam in the country and most of these hail from the Pakistani Christian and Hindu communities. The report further shared that Punjab province has become a hub of these types of forced conversions.
In Sana’s case, her situation isn’t helped by the local authorities as despite registration of an F.I.R police report there is little progress in the matter. Both police and marriage registration departments also play a heinous game against the victims of such crimes; in reality Sana Shahid was a minor at time of her marriage, but on the religious marriage certificate the age is mentioned to be 18 years old.
To appease her desperate parents, the local police also feigned some raids to recover their daughter, but nothing concrete came out till now. Recently, Professor Anjum Paul, Chairman Pakistan Minorities Teachers Association has written a letter to the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif for the recovery of Sana Shahid. This was reiterated by other leaders including Ms. Shunila Ruth, Christian member of Punjab Assembly.
Despite the efforts made by local media and minority rights campaigners, there is still no breakthrough that can help Sana and her family to get justice. In typical manner, there is some media frenzy and then Punjab’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif orders an enquiry, without any positive outcome seen.
In Sana’s case, her family has been traumatized by the incident and her other siblings have dropped out of school due to fear. After her disappearance and re-emergence, the kidnapper families threatened her family to forget what happened and accept the situation. And the local Muslim clerics were in cahoots for performing such a marriage ceremony where an underage child was forced to convert and marry a Muslim man much older then her. It is not unusual for note that in rural settings, operate Mullah Mafias that promote the kidnapping and forced conversions as way of Islam and means of gaining Paradise.
What’s most unfortunate in the quest for justice for Sana Shahid are the numerous factors working against her, adding on to the discrimination she faces. While her lawyers are trying their best, it is quite possible that soon this case might be sent to Sharia Courts which do not allow religious minority lawyers to defend the victims of such crimes. Most probably some Muslim lawyer will prosecute the case with poor and unfair defense. Basically this means that Sana is more than likely going to remain in an abusive relationship for the rest of her life.
If we look at it logically there is nothing unique in this situation because before Sana Shahid there was Noreen Bashir, sisters Tahira and Areema Bibi and countless others who had to accept this sort of fate just because they are born in a country where religious minorities are powerless and have little or nil access or justice.
Why forced conversions issue is not a top priority for the Government of Pakistan, despite the gravity of the situation? Forced conversions have been very publicly denounced by rights campaigners in the country, Pakistan’s National Commission for Minorities has already proposed a bill that can help to put an end to the forced conversions, HRCP and Aurat Foundation have time and again proposed a carefully drafted bill to end forced conversion that can also help in eradiating the prevalent minority discrimination.
But the current government is turning a deaf ear because it fear the local religious powers that agitate at every tiny step proposed for a more humane and sensible initiative focusing improvement in human rights situation for the citizens of Pakistan. Just last year, after coming under heavy international and local pressure on the matter of increasing forced conversion cases, the local ministry of religious affairs publicly opposed the potential law on “forced conversion” much to the dismay of Pakistani Hindu and Christian communities and rights campaigners fighting on ground.
Islam teaches religious tolerance and respect for one another, but locally minorities and innocent victims like Sana Shahid pay a heavy price at the hands of religious bigots who use Islam for subjugating their basic human rights.