LAHORE, Pakistan—Cecilia Masih wished she had not stepped out of her house that morning. A 15-year-old Christian, Masih was kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. It changed her life in ways she cannot even comprehend at her age.
Masih, a resident of Pakistan’s Faisalabad city, was visiting her aunt, Jameela, who lives in the same town. She discovered that her aunt was not home and decided to wait outside the house for her to return.
That was when Jameela’s neighbour, Rukhsana, a woman in her late 40s, spotted Masih and asked her to come over. She told Masih that she could spend time at her place instead of waiting for her aunt, outside.
Masih did not hesitate as Rukhsana was a familiar face.
“I went to her place where she drugged my tea,” Masih told VICE World News. “Next, I found myself locked in a small room.”
She was now with a 27-year-old Muslim man Zafar Iqbal. Within hours of drugging Masih, Rukhsana had sold her to Iqbal for PKR 50,000 ($314).
“When I insisted on being released, he [Iqbal] said that he bought me from Rukhsana to convert me,” said Masih.
Forced conversions to Islam and forced marriages are among many methods to persecute religious minorities in Pakistan. The four percent of the population that already faces state-sponsored discrimination in the form of its stringent blasphemy laws, is also on the receiving end of the escalating conversions.
Masih was held captive for three months. “They took me to a mosque where a cleric forced me to recite the kalima (Islamic verse). At gunpoint, I was forced to sign a nikahnama (marriage certificate) and an affidavit of consent to marriage. In the document, they changed my age to 18,” recalled Masih.
Her abductor gave her a new name, Aisha.
In April last year, local state police arrested the cleric who had facilitated the “marriage” and were able to trace Masih.
Masih’s parents got her custody back. The conversion and marriage were now void.
However, the case against her abductor is still going on in court. “Iqbal was arrested but was released on bail,” Masih’s mother, Naseem, told vice world news. “We haven’t sought justice for our daughter as we can’t afford to hire a lawyer.”
Rukhsana, who sold Masih, was questioned by the authorities but no formal charges were pressed against her.
Every year, roughly a thousand girls from minority communities are abducted and converted in Pakistan, according to the NGO Aurat foundation. Local human rights workers say that the number of unreported cases is much higher.
Once kidnapped, most of the girls don’t return home and are not allowed to keep any contact with their families.
In conversion cases, there is a clear pattern of abductors coercing the girls to give false testimonies in court. The “marriage certificates” and affidavits are fudged to change age, and juvenile girls remain in captivity as “brides”.
Masih’s family considers itself lucky to have reunited with her.
But the fear of the unknown haunts her–fear based on the tradition of blaming survivors for their predicament. “My brothers’ peers taunt them over my kidnapping,” said Masih. “Our relatives stopped talking to us after the incident.”
For now, Masih has discontinued her schooling. “It is difficult for me to concentrate on my studies anymore. I need coaching but we can’t afford that.” She now works in a beauty parlour to help out her parents financially. “Working at the salon keeps my mind away from negative thoughts. I have learnt bridal makeup and hairstyling as well.” She thinks this can be a good skill for her future.
In the southern province of Sindh, roughly twenty Hindu girls are converted every month, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “Conversions of vulnerable girls to Islam is just another form of genocide. For more than two decades, Hindu girls have been taken away because of their faith, and one day there will be none left to be taken,” Veeru Kohli, a human rights activist based in Sindh, told VICE World News.
Kohli believes that part of the problem is that the government is in cahoots with powerful peers (saints) who run shrines and seminaries that are considered breeding grounds for forcible conversions. “No action is taken against the peers who are the real architects of the conversions,” she said.
Under Pakistan’s Child Marriage Restraint Act, marrying a girl under 16 or a boy under 18 is an offense but the law is often ignored in the cases of forced conversions.
Pakistan does not have a law on forced conversions. Many cite the pressure from religious groups as the primary reason. In Sindh, the legislation has been backtracked twice in the last four years due to mounting pressure from religious groups. “Pakistan is still trying to define the term ‘forced conversion’ and passing a law to stop these acts looks a far-fetched dream,” said Kohli. She believes that Pakistan doesn’t see forced conversions as a criminal offense and this is the reason why successive governments succumbed to pressure from Islamists.
30 Nov 20/ Monday Source: vice.com