A 14-year-old Christian girl was driven to tears in a Pakistani courtroom this month when a judge ruled that she must return to the Muslim man who kidnapped her. Maira Shahbaz shares the traumatic saga of many young Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan who are kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam and married to their abductors.
On April 28, Maira’s life was turned upside down when three armed men caught her walking on her way home and forced her into a car, shooting into the air as they drove away. One of the men, Mohamad Nakash, forged a fake marriage certificate and claimed Maira converted to Islam. The marriage documents state she is 19 years old, a claim her parents refute with her birth certificate proving her real age is 14. Further, the imam whose signature is supposedly on the marriage certificate denies its legitimacy. Meanwhile, Nakash already has another wife.
Maira’s parents entered this month’s hearing hopeful to build on the success of the ruling at the end of July that allowed her to leave her abductor’s custody and stay at a women’s shelter. Instead, the Lahore High Court chose to send Maira back to the abusive arms of her captor.
Christians make up less than two percent of the population in the Muslim-majority country, and this is hardly the first discriminatory court decision to take the side of Muslim abusers over Christian victims. Young Christian girls in particular fall victim to the Pakistani court system’s bias against religious minorities.
Last October, another 14-year-old Christian girl, Huma Younus, was kidnapped from her home in Karachi, Pakistan, by three men and taken to a city more than 370 miles away. Days later, Huma’s distraught parents received documents alleging her conversion to Islam, along with a marriage certificate from her abductor.
Pakistani law, under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, forbids marriage for those under the age of 18. This law should protect Huma and girls like her. Yet, like Maira, Pakistan’s judicial system failed to provide justice for Huma, and even paved the way for more girls to be targeted. In a stunning ruling, the Sindh High Court in Karachi declared that Islamic law stipulates men can marry underage girls who have had their first menstrual cycle. Huma’s parents learned just this month that she is trapped in her abductor’s house, confined to a single room, and expecting a baby.
Predatory men prey upon young girls from religious minority communities because they know the authorities will not hold them accountable. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warns that local police, especially in Punjab and Sindh, often neglect to fully investigate these cases, making them complicit. During investigations, the women and girls are at times questioned in front of their kidnappers, creating an environment where they are terrified to tell the truth.
Pakistani human rights organization Movement for Solidarity and Peace estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian women and girls are kidnapped and forced to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam every year. Young girls should be in school dreaming of a bright future, not fearing the possibility of abduction and forced marriage. But in Pakistan today, that fear is legitimate.
The mainstreaming of religious discrimination and the stigmatization of religious minorities exacerbate the issue of forced marriage and forced conversion of minority girls.
Christian communities are among the poorest in Pakistan, and Christians are often confined to segregated urban ghettos or rural villages apart from their Muslim neighbors. The most dangerous and stigmatized jobs are sometimes reserved for Christians. Last year, the Pakistani military even stated that only Christians should apply for sewer sweeper jobs it was advertising, filthy jobs that are considered culturally “unclean.”
Discrimination along religious lines enables bad police, judges, and politicians to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Christian girls. The untold suffering of thousands of girls and women currently living in forced marriages and adhering to a religion they were forced to adopt is a tragedy the world ought not ignore.
Innocent young girls and women are among those suffering the most from the blatant religious discrimination that dominates Pakistan’s culture. The terrible rulings in Maira Shahbaz and Huma Younus’ court cases should serve as a wake-up call to Pakistani political leaders. Pakistani officials should work to swiftly address the issue of religious discrimination by authorities and the courts—for which innocent young women pay the highest price.