India Pakistan women (La Presse)

Rampant Forced Conversions in Pakistan’s Sindh Province

Last week, 15-year-old Mehak, a ninth standard student left for school to attend her classes in a local school at Jacobabad, Sindh but never returned home.

She was kidnapped by a father of four Ali Raza Solangi. After abducting the minor girl, Solangi forcibly converted her to Islam and married the girl who is half his age.

Mehak’s father Vijay Kumar was devastated. “My daughter Mahek Kumari is a minor – we have all the documents to prove her age. Ali Raza, who abducted her, is already married with four children. He is a daily wage earner. Tell me, why my daughter would be inspired to marry him?” he questioned.

After her kidnapping, a group of silent Hindu men protested against forced conversions of their daughters and sisters. But they were asked to remain silent and wait for the court’s decision. They wrapped their mouth with black strips to record their protest despite intimidation.

Forced conversions are rampant in Pakistan – especially the Sindh province which home to most of the country’s Hindu population. University of Cambridge, in a 2018 report titled “Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages in Sindh, Pakistan” estimates that “1,000 women and girls from religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted and them married off to their abductors every year.”

Despite such alarmingly high numbers, the government has failed to arrest this rising trend of conversions. In 2019 alone, around 50 confirmed hindu and Christian girls were forcibly converted to Islam.

Most of these girls belong to poor families, hail from remote areas of the Sindh province and under the age of 18.

Almost all of the conversions follow the same pattern. A girl – a minor in most cases – is kidnapped and transported to a distant part of the country where she is held for weeks, even months at times.

In most of these cases, the culprits usually lure them through text messages and whatsapp chats. Taking advantage of their family’s financial vulnerabilities, they convince them into believing that they are in love with them. With promises of financial wellbeing and a better life, these girls leave their families without informing them to run away with their new-found lovers.

During these kidnappings, they are allegedly brainwashed, converted to Islam and then forced to marry men two-times, or at times three-times their age.

The families of these girls call upon the police to recover their children. As investigation gathers pace and police begins to nab the suspects, a video or statement is then released in which the abducted girl repeats a written script.

The contents of these statements are roughly the same in all of the cases. The naïve girl says she has decided to convert to Islam out of her free will and under no pressure from the kidnappers. And appeals to the police and court officials to protect her from her family and be allowed to live in her new home.

At times, these claims are taken at their face value by the courts and police. Arguing with the families, the police officials say the girl is entitled to her free will and can choose to marry or not marry anyone she pleases.

More so, the clerics who convert these girls to Islam usually use the girl’s statement as a proof of their innocence arguing that they had only done what the girl wished in the first place.

But these claims raise further questions as to how can a minor be allowed to change her religion in her parents’ absence? And why does each and every conversion have to be of Hindu minor girls? Why are there no boys converting?

And more importantly, why is the state repeatedly failing at enforcing the rules and enacting legislation to curb this heinous practice?