On April 18, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ruled that the three Hindu women who had been converted to Islam, Rinkel Kumari, Dr Lata Kumari and Aasha Kumari, should decide if they want to return to their parents or stay with their new husbands. All three stated that they had willingly converted to Islam and wanted to live with their husbands.
However, there are still concerns about the climate of intimidation in which these cases were carried out and both Rinkel and Dr Lata had previously made contradictory statements in court about their conversions. Often in such cases the Hindu parents and lawmakers receive death threats and therefore raises the question if these decisions by the three women were made under duress. – Zehra Nabi
Imagine your name is Bharti. You are a 15-year-old Hindu girl who lives in a small apartment in Lyari. Your father is a driver and social worker who raises money for others while struggling to pay your family’s medical bills. You have three older brothers, who are busy with their own jobs and families. Your future seems bleak.
Imagine you then meet Abid. He is the son of a police constable and promises to marry you. He promises you many things – but on the condition that you convert to Islam. You agree and run away with him. His family teaches you the Kalima and gives you a niqab to wear. After a few days, they take you to a maulvi. While the nikah form is being filled, you already know what you have to say. You tell the maulvi that you are 18-years-old and your name is now Ayesha.
Imagine that a few months pass. You are still living with Abid and his family. Your father lost the court case after a medical report was produced that stated that you are 18. You couldn’t look your mother in the eye when she came to court. You haven’t once been able to visit your home since you ran away. Your in-laws still haven’t given you a cellphone but sometimes you are able to borrow a phone and briefly talk to your brothers. When you speak to them, you can’t help but cry.
Be it the mean streets of Lyari or the dusty villages of interior Sindh, stories such as these are becoming increasingly common in Pakistan. In the last four months alone there have been at least 47 reported cases of alleged forced conversions of young girls from minority communities. But none of these cases have quite captured the fascination of the public as that of Rinkel Kumari.
Nineteen-year-old Rinkel disappeared from her home in Mirpur Mathelo, a village in the Ghotki district of Sindh, on February 24. The answer to what happened to her varies significantly, depending on whom you speak to. According to her father Nand Lal, a government schoolteacher, Rinkel woke up somewhere between four and five in the morning to go to the bathroom when she was drugged and kidnapped by armed men. She regained consciousness at around nine in the morning to find herself in Barchundi Sharif in Daharaki – a stronghold of PPP MNA Mian Abdul Haq, also known as Mian Mitho, who is the spiritual leader of the shrine where conversions regularly take place. Just hours after her arrival in Barchundi Sharif, Rinkel was forcibly converted to Islam, married off to one of the kidnappers, Naveed Shah, and subsequently renamed Faryal.
Mian Mohammed Aslam, the son of Mian Mitho, provides a different version of events. He stated on an evening news show that Rinkel showed up with Naveed Shah at his doorstep, expressing her wish to convert to Islam and get married. Aslam added that he contacted Rinkel’s parents to let them know his daughter was with him and even invited them to come visit her before she converted, but they never showed up.
And to add to the confusion, there is a third account of events according to which Rinkel was indeed in love with Naveed and went to meet him on the morning of February 24, but did not know that he would be waiting with other men, ready to kidnap her.
In response to the latter accounts, Rinkel’s family has stated that they did not want to meet their daughter at Mian Mohammad Aslam’s residence because they were concerned that they would not be able to talk freely in the presence of the MNA’s son. And her parents have denied suggestions that Rinkel knew Naveed, stating that since there is no phone in their house and Rinkel does not own a cellphone, there was no way for them to have contacted each other.
But be it Rinkel, Bharti or any other girl, the problem at the heart of all these cases is that nobody knows what actually happened to the victims. Some of the girls, including Rinkel, have made somewhat contradictory statements, initially saying that they willingly converted to Islam and later crying that they want to return to their parents. And in all known cases, the accused have fiercely guarded the girls from meeting their families. This raises several questions: Were the girls’ statements made under duress? Should non-Muslim parents be allowed to meet their now Muslim daughters? Does tempting a young girl with false promises count as coercion? Are these forced conversions and marriages essentially cases of rape and sexual harassment committed in the guise of Islam?
Advocate Iqbal Haider believes the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal yes, and he does not hide his disgust towards Mian Mitho and others involved in such conversions: “Mian Mitho is exploiting his status as an MNA and has been indulging in the most objectionable activities.”
Haider has fought many cases of forced conversions and described the kind of problems that commonly arise in such cases. “No police officer would dare defy the orders of an MNA. The police is not independent,” stated Haider, adding, “I recently saw it in court when two police officers led the girl into the courtroom and her alleged husband was glued to her.”
The police was apparently unconcerned that the man was yet to be proven as the husband and that he was imposing his presence on the girl. It was only when Haider shouted at the police that they separated the two. The families are often not allowed anywhere near their daughters and Rinkel’s parents and their supporters have received public death threats from Mian Mitho and his abettors.
It was against this climate of intimidation that the court decided to move Rinkel and Dr Lata, a 29-year-old who also converted and got married in February, to Islamabad. Haider will not be representing any of the cases in the Supreme Court but he believes it was the right decision to move the girls to more neutral territory. “Keep the girls in Islamabad in a protected area but you can’t keep them there forever. I hope the court holds judicial inquiries into each and every case.”
Haider emphasised the importance of cross-examining all the witnesses since the girls’ statements are often made under duress. And he also pointed out the importance of having a liberal judge since, in his words, “There are bigots everywhere.”
Rinkel and Lata had their court hearing in Islamabad on March 26. Rinkel was barely able to speak and it took her two minutes to answer whether she studied science or arts in school. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry instructed everybody to leave the court so that he could talk to the girls privately. The girls were then allowed to briefly meet their parents before being sent to Darul-Aman for two weeks, according to the court’s orders.
In a phone conversation the day after the ruling, Rinkel’s father, Nand Lal, revealed that in the few minutes the family spent with Rinkel, she cried non-stop and said that she wanted to return home with them. She also told them that Mian Mitho’s men had threatened her to not make a statement in favour of her family. While her father hopes that Darul-Aman will provide a safe environment for his daughter, the family does fear that Mian Mitho’s men will be able to reach her there as well. If Rinkel is happily married, as Mian Mitho and his followers like to claim, then why do they feel the need to resort to these intimidatory tactics?
PPP MNA Nafisa Shah, who has publicly condemned the forced conversions, believes this environment of intimidation is the main source of the problem. “Coercion does not just mean using brute force,” she said, “We have an extremely claustrophobic environment in which there is space for only one religion.” And it is this claustrophobic environment that limits opportunities for minority communities in the country and makes the offer to convert and get married all the more alluring to young, vulnerable women. Nafisa Shah also pointed out that Hindus are rarely involved in serious crimes in Pakistan, but because they don’t have arms, they become all the more vulnerable to outside threats.
Nafisa Shah did not want to specifically talk about Mian Mitho, but she made it clear that these forced conversions go against the ideology of the PPP and points out that people like Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer lost their lives as a result of speaking up against prejudicial laws. Shah emphasised that the space for dialogue and multi-faith expression is shrinking and attributes Talibanisation as the source of this problem. She also added that conversions are not an issue, but the fact that in Pakistan it is a one-way street of only minorities converting to Islam that causes concern.
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