A Congressional Briefing on Minority Women’s Rights in Pakistan was held on October 18, 2012 at the main US Capitol Building, Room HC-5. The focus of the briefing was to inform the staff of members of the U. S. Congress on legal, institutional, and societal challenges faced by the women of minority faiths in Pakistan. As the briefing was organized by the Hindu American Foundation, many of the details provided in the briefing were on the issues of Sindhi Hindu women. A recent videotape that detailed the stories of abduction and forcible conversion of Sindhi Hindu women was also shown. A case was made that Pakistani establishment was creating a rift between Muslim and Hindu Sindhis and forcing Hindus to migrate from Pakistan. Among several recommendations made at the briefing, there appear to be a substantial agreement that the U. S. State department be asked to include Pakistan to the “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. Other countries that are already on the CPC list include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan
The CPC list is maintained by the Office of International Religious Freedom at the U. S. State department to promote religious freedom as a core objective of U. S. foreign policy. The office issues annual report on international religious freedom covering all195 countries and designate countries that commit severe violations of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (H.R. 2431) and its amendment of 1999 (Public Law 106-55).
Allison Hollabaugh who has worked as a Policy Analyst in the area of international religious freedoms for many years moderated the briefing. She has been a forceful advocate for human rights in general and religious freedoms in particular.
The panelists were:
Lisa Curtis (Senior Research Fellow at Asian Research Center), she focuses on America’s economic, security and political relationships with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other nations of South Asia.
Knox Thames (Director of Policy and Reseat, U. S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF)
Dr. Rubina Greenwood, Chairwoman of International Sindhi Women Organization (ISWO) and Vice Chairwoman of World Sindhi Institute (WSI)
Samir Kalran Esq., Director and Senior Fellow for Human Rights at Hindu American Foundation.
Samir Kalran began his presentation by telling of the story of a Hindu Sindhi girl Nandani, who was abducted from Karachi and pushed into prostitution. He added that such stories including forced conversion have increased substantially in the last few years. He also talked about “bonded labor” rural districts of Sindh and South Punjab, where this practice has been used to exploit mostly Hindus of scheduled casts. The “bonded labor” starts with “Peshgi” or advance loans where the landlord charges extremely high interest rates. Mr. Kalran contend that discrimination is embedded in Pakistan’s constitution and cited Article 2 that declares Islam as the state religion and Article 31 that requires protection and promotion of Islam in Pakistan. He added that the blasphemy laws (sections 295B, 295c and 298 A-C) impose severe punishments including death penalty for insulting Prophet Mohammad and desecration of Koran. He stated that one of main cause of oppression of Hindus is also the lack of legal process to get marriages of Hindus registered. This makes it very difficult to get National ID cards. This in turn gives excuse to judges to declare that abducted Hindu women were unmarried. He recommended that Government sponsored textbooks must be revised to teach tolerance and respect for all religions. He also called for strict controls over Islamic seminaries as they play a key role in forced conversions and kidnapping of Hindu and Christian women. He said that the legislation alone will not solve the problem and called for better monitoring, particularly educating police force to have religious tolerance and treat people of all religions equally well.
Lisa Curtis said that although the issue of exploitation of minority women in Pakistan is impacting many people, it does not get much attention in the deliberations among Human Rights advocates. She urged that anyone who is concerned with human rights’ issue must understand the serious rights of women who are non-Muslim. She quoted a recent poll that shows that Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women in the world
. The poll takes into account targeted violence against female public officials, dismal healthcare and desperate poverty. Ms. Curtis that added that even the Muslim women are not spared from discrimination and held back from reaching their full potential. She talked about Malala Yousafzai, a girl 14 years old, who was targeted for murder because of her activism to promote the cause of educating girls in her town. She added that earlier she was dismayed the Pakistani society largely remained silent on acts of violence against minority women, however, she is now encouraged by the reaction of Pakistani government and Pakistani public against the murderous attack on Malala Yousafzai. Lisa Curtis touched the subject of “honor killings” that has resulted many deaths of women. Noting the election of Benazir Bhutto and her prominent rise in Pakistan’s politics was due to the reason because she was from the privileged class of Pakistan. The women from the privileged class do not face as much discrimination compared to the common women in Pakistan. She said that people should be alarmed when the migration of minorities from Pakistan to India is four times to that of from India to Pakistan. She called upon legal changes to safeguard minority rights including providing the right to vote for any candidate in general elections like their Muslim brothers and sisters. She concluded that the status of women rights in Pakistan will very much tell the world whether or not Pakistan was on the path of stability and human rights’ improvement.
Rubina Greenwood said that 82% of Hindus in Pakistan were from scheduled casts, who are at the bottom of economic and social strata. For this reason, very few NGOs take interest in their issues. She added that government’s inability to provide a framework to register Hindu marriages has been exploited by some to forcibly convert Hindu women and marry them off to Muslim men with impunity. She pointed out that the police often refuse to register First Information Report (FIR) from Hindu women. Dr. Greenwood briefly described the recent case of Rinkal Kumari, who was abducted, forcible converted and married off to a man. She said that this poor girl in so many ways tried to communicate to the world that she wants to go back to her family but even the Supreme Court of Pakistan did not allow her to make a statement in open court. She was forced to give her statement under the supervision of few officials who threatened her that her father and mother will be killed if she gave a statement that she wants to return to her family. Dr. Greenwood added that the main culprit in this situation is a prominent member of the ruling Peoples Party and is a sitting member of National Assembly. She said that neither the party leadership nor the government has taken any action against him. She expressed the view that a careful and in-depth analysis would show that the establishment that has an effective control of Pakistan is behind many of these situations. They want to divide the people on the religious affiliations so the people would be busy fighting with each other instead of fighting for the rights of all persons. She also asked that the syllabus of textbooks taught in Pakistani schools be modified so it predominantly carries the message of equality of all people regardless of their religious affiliations and not to profess superiority of one religion over other. She emphasized that drastic reduction of Hindu population in Pakistan which was 15% at the time of independence to the current level of 2% shows that Hindu citizens of Pakistan are not receiving fair treatment. She quoted that every year more than 1,000 Hindu families migrate from Pakistan. She asked that the world should support the “Right to return to homeland” for all Hindu Sindhis, who have been forced to leave Pakistan. Dr. Greenwood referred that although Pakistan ratified the “UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” but has not signed it as yet. She appealed to Pakistan Government to sign this resolution the world it is sincere about elimination of all forms of discrimination against women
Kavita Tekchandani talked about her research on legal and procedural hindrance for minority women in Pakistan. She said that one of root cause for rampant abuse of the rights of minority rights is that minorities do not have adequate representation. She said that there is not even one woman who is a member of the national or any provincial parliaments. He said about 1.2 million Dalits, living mainly in Thar area of Sindh, are denied any representation because Pakistan government would not include them in census by saying that they nomadic people. She also said that lack of a process to register Hindu marriages has resulted in non-issuance of Birth certificates and national ID cards for a large number of Hindu boys and girls thus denying them the opportunity to vote when they become adults. She emphasized that the passage of Hindu marriage registration act will go long way to address some of these issues. She urged the US Congress to bring about pressure on the Pakistani leaders to help pass such a law. In addition to much talked about provisions of the blasphemy laws of Pakistan, she pointed a critical flaw that it does not give any weight to the “intend” of an accused. This leads to wrongful convictions of minority persons.
Knox Thames highlighted the mission of the Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) and said it is an independent NGO that acts like a watchdog and provides analysis reports and recommendations to the U. S. Secretary of State. He said USCIRF has urged the State department to add Pakistan to the “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC)” as the country is not doing enough to safeguard the rights of its religious minorities. The lack of interest by the government and intelligentsia has created an atmosphere where extremists can continue their war on minorities with impunity. He said that although no one has been incarcerated, about 15 persons have been sentenced to death. He said that the plight of “Ahmedis” in Pakistan is as bad as other minorities but no one in Pakistan dares to speak for the rights of Ahmedis. He listed the following immediate actions that the US Congress could take:
1. Bring about pressure on the State department to add Pakistan to the “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list.
2. Continue pressing Pakistan to modify blasphemy laws to make them fair with special provisions for the protection of non-Muslims.
3. Propose and support a resolution that asks Pakistan to bring about reforms that would tangibly result in the improvement of human rights for women and minorities at
the up-coming six-year review of Pakistan’s human rights’ record in Geneva.
After the last panelist ended his presentation, a recent short video titled “Religious Minorities of Pakistan”
was played. It talks about the fears of Hindu Sindhis, their loyalties to Pakistan, and the examples of legal and attitude barriers.
An appeal by a Sindhi Hindu spokesperson in the video that makes me think about this issue again and again is “Please sir, for God’s sake, do not equate Hindus with enemies; we were born in Pakistan, we are Pakistanis, and we will die in Pakistan”.
About the writer – Mr. Khalid Hashmani is a Washington DC-based veteran human rights activist. He is the founding President of Sindhi Association of North America (SANA) and Chief coordinator of Sindhi Excellence Team (SET) that participates in advocacy activities on behalf of rural Sindhi.
Writer can be reached at KHashmani@hotmail.com