A high court ruling in Pakistan validating the marriage and forced conversion to Islam of a 14-year-old Christian girl has heightened fears that it will encourage others to commit such crimes, sources said.
The High Court in Sindh Province on February 3 dismissed a petition to have the marriage and forced conversion of a Catholic girl overturned. The court ruled that both were valid since a girl under sharia (Islamic law) can marry after her first menstrual cycle.
“The court … has justified the violation of the girl’s body” – Tabassum Yousaf
Huma Younus was taken from her home in Karachi’s Zia Colony on October 10 while her parents were away. She was forced to marry the man who abducted her, identified as Abdul Jabbar of Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab Province, her attorney said.
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“The hearing on February 3 lasted only five minutes,” the family’s attorney, Tabassum Yousaf, told Morning Star News. “The court, in just a few words citing the sharia, has justified the violation of the girl’s body since she has already had her first period.”
Yousaf added that the family was prohibited from seeing Huma because police said her life would be at risk if she was brought to the courtroom.
He said the family challenged Huma’s marriage and forced conversion under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, which declares marrying a person under 18 years old an offence punishable by up to three years in prison.
Although the Sindh government takes credit for becoming Pakistan’s first elected assembly to pass a bill on child marriage in April 2014, the law is still poorly implemented, sources said.
Yousaf said he submitted Huma’s baptismal and school documents in court that proved she was 14 years old. Nevertheless, Sindh High Court judges Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro and Irshad Ali Shah ruled that the marriage was valid based on her menstrual cycle.
The legal battle has been going on for months with constant delays and excuses cited so as not to present the underage girl in court, sources said.
The family has filed an appeal to the Court of Justice in Sindh Province, and Yousaf said a hearing is scheduled for March 4. Police will thus have more time for medical tests to determine Huma’s age, he said.
Guardian Consent Needed
The girl’s parents were informed via text message that Huma had converted to Islam and had married Jabbar “of her free will,” sources said.
Since forced conversions are not illegal in Pakistan, her attorney said he believed the case hinged on Huma’s age.
Prominent Supreme Court Advocate Saiful Malook told Morning Star News that even though sharia allows marriage of a minor girl if she has her first period, the marriage has to be validated by the girl’s guardian.
“In no way can any court of law endorse an underage marriage unless it is supported by the girl’s guardian,” Malook said.
“Marriage is governed by the Contract Act, wherein no minor can enter into a contract or agreement without the explicit approval of her guardian. In this particular case, the court must take into account whether the girl’s legal guardian has consented to her marriage even if it’s judging the act under the sharia.”
“Another Christian girl aged 14 was recently abducted and gang-raped …” – Napoleon Qayyum
He added that a 14-year-old minor cannot be deemed mature enough to change her religion by her own will, considering the fact that she could have been coerced or blackmailed into renouncing her faith. Huma reportedly filed an affidavit declaring that she married of her own free will, but Yousaf has said that such an affidavit can’t be filed legally until she obtains an identity card at age 18.
The high court must order Huma to record a statement in the courtroom, Malook said.
“If the police are not producing the girl before the court on various pretences, the court should be wise enough to see through the police’s mala fide [‘in bad faith’] and hand the custody of the minor back to her parents,” he said.
Malook, who represented Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen – better known as Asia Bibi – before the Supreme Court and won her freedom, said that abducting for the purpose of forced conversion and underage marriage is a major problem in Pakistan.
He added that legislation effective in curbing the practice is long overdue.
Christian rights activists believe that the ruling of the Sindh High Court will encourage more perpetrators of such crimes to hide behind sharia. Pakistan Center of Law of Justice Executive Director Napoleon Qayyum told Morning Star News that the high court’s ruling would result in a surge in cases of forced conversion and underage marriages of Christian girls.
“Another Christian girl aged 14 was recently abducted and gang-raped by some Muslim youths in Bihar Colony area of Lahore,” Qayyum said. “The victim is a student of grade nine and was abducted by four or five boys on her way to a local tuition centre on January 16. The abductors not only raped her but also obtained her signatures and thumb impressions on some papers.”
Police were able to recover her on January 19, but Qayyum said he fears the suspects will use her signed documents to produce a fake marriage certificate and religion conversion letter in a bid to escape abduction and rape charges.
“This is common modus operandi of Muslims to confuse the court and avoid justice,” he said. In nearly all such cases, Qayyum said, the rapists threaten to harm the girls’ families if they reveal the truth.
“Moreover, the girls are also forced to give false statements in court that they have changed their religion of free will and had married of their own choice,” Qayyum said. “Girls belonging to minority communities often succumb to pressure and consideration for their family’s security, which has further emboldened the men belonging to the majority faith.”
Each year, about 1,000 Christian and Hindu women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam
Most victims of forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan are reportedly Christian and Hindu girls and women forced to marry Muslim men who are much older than them. According to the Centre for Social Justice, at least 159 such cases were reported between 2013 and 2019.
The Sindh legislature in 2016 passed a law outlawing forcible conversions and conversions before the age of 18 but, under pressure from Islamic extremist groups, the governor declined to sign it.
Each year, about 1,000 Christian and Hindu women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam and then married off to their abductors or rapists, according to the National Commission of Justice and Peace and the Pakistan Hindu Council.
Pakistan ranked fifth on Christian support organisation Open Doors 2020 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. In November, the United States of America added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom.