A disturbing rise in forced marriages, sometimes backed by the authorities
A recent spate of kidnappings in Pakistan, involving teenage girls and young women targeted for sexual exploitation, has outraged international opinion. The kidnappings, and the legal system’s response to them, betray the vision of Pakistan’s founding father. When Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared on August 14, 1947, the day Pakistan came into being, that non-Muslims in the new country must be shown “tolerance and good-will”, he could not have imagined that 70 years later, girls from minority faiths would no longer feel safe to walk the streets.
According to the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, every year up to 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls aged between 12 and 25 are abducted by Muslim men. Many are forced to marry their abductor and convert to Islam. Worse still, often the state sees the girls’ conversion to Islam as trumping all other concerns, including allegations of rape, prostitution and blackmail.
Take Sadaf Masih (Khan), a Protestant girl from a remote village in the Punjab province. Contacts close to the family have told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that, following her abduction, she has been forced to abort three babies. Her husband says he does not want a child of her caste or religious heritage.
The family’s efforts to force the abductor to give up Sadaf have so far failed in the courts. More recently, on-the-ground sources have reported to ACN that Sadaf has been segregated from the rest of the household and is being forced to work in a field from dawn to dusk.
Other girls are trafficked or forced into prostitution. Still more are never seen or heard of again.
In spite of indisputable evidence to show that the young person is a minor, within a few days of the abduction, the perpetrator tends to produce dubious evidence to show that she is an adult, that they are legally married and that her religious conversion is entirely voluntary.
And in spite of all the evidence, the courts frequently decide in the abductor’s favour.
Aid to the Church in Need has been following closely the case of Maira Shahbaz (pictured above, photo courtesy of ACN), a 14-year-old Catholic girl from Madina Town, near Faisalabad. We have been speaking regularly to her lawyer, family and friends.
In August 2020, a man named Mohamad Nakash Tariq appeared in Lahore High Court alleging that Maira was 19 years of age, that she had embraced Islam of her own will and had consented to marry him.
Not one of these statements was true. Yet the High Court ruled in his favour, effectively sending Maira back to a life of hell in his home. The evidence to refute Nakash’s claims was fully at the court’s disposal.
First, Maira’s family produced a government birth certificate to show Maira was 13 at the time of her alleged marriage in October 2019. Second, the Muslim cleric cited in the so-called marriage certificate produced by Nakash went on oath to deny any involvement in the ceremony. Third, the court’s failure to examine Maira’s testimony closely meant Nakash’s efforts to blackmail her went undetected.
This mockery of justice was exposed in a matter of weeks when Maira miraculously escaped and gave a statement to police that described the life she lived under his roof.
After Nakash had abducted her, she told them: “I found myself at an unknown place where the accused forced me to have a glass of juice that contained an intoxicant. “I was semi-conscious at that moment and the accused raped me forcefully.
She said that her abductors threatened to release a video of her rape and to murder her family. Months on, Nakash has renewed his threats, saying that the girl’s renunciation of the marriage and refusal to accept Islam were apostasy. There are reports of suspicious men in the neighbourhood hunting the family.
Until this man is brought to justice, Pakistan will have betrayed the vision of its founding father, who declared: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your Mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.”
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