KARACHI: Nagina Bibi cannot sleep properly, not knowing where her little girl is. Huma Younus, 14, a student of the eighth grade was abducted on October 10, 2019, and whisked away in a taxi cab, by a man known to the family.
The last time that Nagina saw her 14-year-old daughter was when the girl was going to school in the morning. Her husband, Younus Masih, and electrician said she had closed the gate behind him as he had left the house to pick Nagina from her place of work.
“That was the last time she was seen at home,” she says. “Upon reaching home, we saw that she had gone.”
A hue and cry ensued. Nagina and her husband Younus went door to door in their locality of Zia Colony, in Karachi’s Korangi Town, asking everyone if they had seen where Huma had gone, but no one seemed to know anything.
Then some children told her, that they had seen Huma getting into a taxi owned by Abdul Jabbar, the family’s acquaintance and a man who was previously a resident of the same neighborhood.
“Jabbar owned a car and we often hired him trusted him, never thought he would do something like this,” interjects Younus Masih. He is a young man, in his thirties, but recent events have made him age. His eyes have dimmed, and are red-rimmed with tiredness.
The parents went to the police to file an FIR but the police delayed the matter. The FIR was not filed until two days later.
During the following week, the accused called up the parents and made the girl talk on the phone.
“She said things to us which we know for sure that she did not say on her own,” says Nagina. “She said she had run away and married the man of her own free will, and even stranger, she said, she had also converted her faith. My girl, who did not even know her own religion properly – how can she have the understanding to change her faith?”
The parents’ court petition said that the girl was a minor – evidence lying in her birth certificate, and their own wedding certificate, which showed that the girl was definitely 14 years old. Under this age, the girl could not be married off, especially under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, 2013, which defines the cut off age as 18 years for both girls and boys.
On January 17, a parliamentary committee to protect minorities from forced conversions reported that under its observation, most of the cases of forced conversions were taking place in Sindh.
It also observed that some religious groups were possibly behind this criminal act and were trying to legalize it.
Chairman of the committee, Senator Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar admitted that there were religious groups involved, and said that they considered this forced conversion as willful conversion or tried to present it in such a manner.
“These crimes are actually supported by parties including Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, and influential people of certain areas like Mian Mithu of Sindh. However, it must be understood that sometimes conversions happen not under duress and threats, but by choice.”
Journalist Asif Aqueel says that there are certain times that social and economic issues at hand play a pivotal and inevitable role in pushing for this kind of conversion. It has happened historically to other communities as well.
“At times there is a ‘social status upgrade’, which the aggrieved families then present as a ‘forced conversion’,” he says.
However, he condemns the fact that minor girls are the ones who face the worst.
Advocate Tabassum, who is fighting Huma’s case in court says that such cases only serve to create further rifts between communities, threatening society’s very fabric that should create a sense of brotherhood.
“Minorities feel deeply wounded,” she says.
The parliamentary committee was given input by members of the parliament, including PTI lawmaker Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani who has been lobbying for his bill for a long time. Dr. Vankwani has pushed for legislation on forced conversion but despite the hundreds of cases over the years, the Bill is still pending in the National Assembly.
Most girls who have been abducted from Sindh are those belonging to the Hindu religion, mainly because it is their population that is the highest in the province.
Minority rights activist Raj Kumar, who is based in Karachi, and often uses social media to bring attention to the cases that happen in interior Sindh.
According to him, around 50 young girls have been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Most of these young girls make videos later claiming that they did so of their own free will. But the community is enraged.
“Is it that only minors who are girls, want to convert, and that too they always end up getting married?” asks Kumar.
The list of 50 girls, who have been abducted in the near past also includes Huma’s name as well others who have gained some media attention like Anusha Meghwar (Thar), sisters Reena and Raveena (Ghotki), and Jagjit Kaur (Nankana Sahib).
Jagjit’s case also came in the spotlight a few months back and is still ongoing in the Lahore High Court.
Her family claims that she was abducted forcibly, while the kidnapper claims it was a love-marriage. At a certain point, even the Governor and his wife were involved, and they ensured that Jagjit, who was recovered from her ‘husband’, was then sent to a Darul Aman under court orders, remained there.
While the family of the accused demand for her return to them, the parents say she should be allowed to come home so she may speak to her parents herself, without the influence of others.
“She is in such a state at present that they have brainwashed her into saying things,” says Punjab MPA, and Sikh community leader, Ramesh Singh Arora. “She should be allowed to free herself from all this brainwashing,” he says. “However it is without a doubt highly suspicious that all this so-called conversion only takes place after the girl is married forcibly. Even if these people want to make a mission to convert non-Muslims, why is it just girls? And why is it that these girls must be made wives afterward?”
“Gradually people from the majority community have come to realize that there is an element of manipulation and crime in the reported ‘conversions’ mainly of adolescent minority girls,” says Peter Jacob, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Chairman of the People’s Commission for Minority Rights, Punjab (PCMR).
“However a decisive social and political response is not coming forth yet.”
He says that legislation by Sindh provincial assembly failed to receive the assent of the Governor at the time (2016) and a couple of private member bills stand aborted in the National Assembly 2019.
But the parliamentary committee, formed in November 2019, which is supposed to be following up on this situation.
“Under my supervision, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) compiled data in 2013 of 1,733 faith conversions reported in the media from 2000 to 2012,” says Mr Jacob. “The list was of people from Hindu (726), Christian (605), Ahmadi (384), Sikh (3) and Kalashiya (2) faith backgrounds while the religion of 13 individuals was not specified in the news reportage.”
All conversions were recorded, irrespective of motivation however all reported conversions were to Islam.
According to a report published in The News International on 16 March 2011 “around 60 Christians were converting to Islam every month in Lahore and surrounding areas during 2009-2011 owing to economic pressures, security, etc.
A study carried out by the University of Birmingham reported at least 2,866 cases of conversion involving women and girls were reported between January 2012 and June 2017 in Pakistan.
“Recently, PCMR and CSJ compiled the data of 160 incidents of forced conversion which took place during 2013 and 2019 which can be helpful in analyzing the issue and its locale,” says Mr. Jacob. “Additionally, 16 girls have approached Sindh High Court seeking relief from such forced marriages which is yet another source to look at for solutions.”
“The Hindu Marriage Act took seven years to be passed, but it did happen in the end,” says Dr. Vankwani, highlighting the importance of such Bills. However, he says the Act is still not fully implemented. “This Bill is the need of the day, and it must be passed by the Assembly immediately.”
Meanwhile, like all the other parents, Nagina and Younus, demand for their daughter’s safe recovery.
“At the end of the day we do not even care about the religion aspect, all we want is our daughter back,” says Nagina. “We raised our girls well, educating them. Will that man educates her, allow her to become a doctor or engineer? Today he goes around accusing us of threatening him with weapons, while he is the one who sends us threatening messages, with pictures of guns. It is he who is making this about faith, not us.”