Turn on the TV. There is breaking news about a 16-year-old girl who has gone missing. A few hours later, we learn that the abductors have contacted the missing girl's parents. The abductors, according to the news anchor, maintain that the girl was not kidnapped. We're told the girl ran away and converted to another religion. No wait -- she ran away, converted to another religion, has a new name, and is now married -- all in less than 24 hours. Difficult to imagine? How about if I ask you to rewind and hit 'Play' once a day, every day, knowing that with each replay, it is another cherished daughter of a new set of parents who has gone missing? Would you sit there and do nothing? What if I tell you that this isn't at all difficult to imagine for Hindu and Christian families in Pakistan? This tragic story is their story -- the only difference being that it rarely makes news.
According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), every month some 20 to 25 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in the Sindh province of Pakistan alone. These forced conversions are usually in conjunction with kidnapping and forced marriage. If they are not married off to complete and often times, far older strangers, they are beaten, maimed, raped, gang-raped, sold off or thrown into prostitution.
Thus, Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Ahmadiyya families throughout Pakistan live with the constant fear of their daughters (or wives) being snatched. All too frequently, families choose prophylactically to curb the freedom and movement of the females in their respective households, thereby perpetuating a whole other cycle of problems related to illiteracy and financial dependency. When the fear becomes a dreaded reality, families must live with the fact that they will be helpless in securing their loved ones' safe return. If families aren't threatened to leave things be by the politically-connected gangsters and heads of madrassas who orchestrated the kidnapping and forced conversion, they will be intimidated by the police for trying to seek justice. And in the far chance that they're able to gain a sympathetic ear of the police, the police are, in turn, bullied by those same politicians, gangsters and heads of madrassas.
At the Hindu American Foundation, we have worked for nearly a decade to give voice to the especially dire plight of Hindu and other minority girls in Pakistan. Dishearteningly, when we have brought the issue up to policy-makers, highlighting the billions in aid the U.S. doles out year after year and the unchanging and grim situation of minority and poor Pakistanis, far too often the response has been that this issue is not one which they are willing to touch for fear of disturbing our military interest in the region. In the past few months, however, the almost daily occurrence of kidnapping and forced conversion has finally made it onto the radar screen of the international media. Maybe media exposure will translate to public pressure, forcing our government and the Pakistani government to act? One can at least hope.
In Oct. 2011, the Daily Mail, a UK-based media outlet, covered the frightening case of a 12 year-old Christian girl for whom a shopping trip to the Pakistani city of Lahore with a friend turned into nothing less than a living nightmare. The girl's "friend" was part of the kidnapping plan and lured the young Christian to her kidnappers who took her to a village more than 100 miles away. There she was beaten for refusing to convert to Islam, raped, and forced to sign papers that married her to her rapist. Then for the next eight months, she was repeatedly raped by the rapist who was, at least on paper, her "legal husband," as well as others. Short of a year of captivity, this brave little girl managed to escape and immediately called her parents to save her.
According to an AHRC investigation, the parents had reported her missing in January 2011. Clearly, little was done by the police to find her because it wasn't until nine months later that the parents ended up rescuing her themselves. They took their daughter directly to the local magistrate to record an official complaint. Instead of initiating any medical exams for the victim or taking steps to bring the perpetrators to justice, local law enforcement threatened the parents with criminal charges for refusing to return their daughter to her "legal husband" -- never mind that the official age to legally marry in Pakistan is 16. Links between the "legal husband" and the terror group, Lakshar-e-Taiba, have been reported and probably have something to do with the police's complicity. Today the perpetrators continue to roam the streets freely and the family has been forced into hiding.
In the past two months, the case of Rinkel Kumari also made international headlines. The 19-year-old went missing in mid-February. The kidnappers, associates of influential local politician Mian Abdul Haq, alias Mian Mithhoo, of the Pakistan Peoples Party of the National Assembly, abducted Rinkel at the crack of dawn from her home. She was dragged away to a madrassa headed by Mian Mithhoo. According to the ACHR, this madrassa, Dargah Aalia Qadria Bharchoondi Sharif, is known well in Sindh province for converting Hindu girls and has openly touted its goal of converting 2000 Hindus to Islam every year.
Rinkel's parents received a call within hours from Mian Mithhoo informing them that Rinkel had "willingly" left their home, "come" to his madrassa, "embraced" Islam, and was now married to a man by the name of Naveed Shah. Upon receiving the news, the family tried to lodge the equivalent of a missing persons complaint with the local police. First the police refused, but after mounting public pressure from the Hindu community, they were forced to respond.
At the first hearing on Feb. 25th, the court was flooded with rifle-toting supporters of Mian Mithoo, Mian Mithoo himself and his associates. Nearly drowned out by the chants from the galley of "Allah hu Akhbar" (Allah the Almighty), Rinkel tearfully testified that she wanted to live with her parents and that she had only accepted Islam and married Shah to protect her family from the death threats made by her abductors. Instead of being moved by Rinkel's story, the judge postponed the hearing till the next day and Rinkel was placed in police custody. There she was, according to media accounts, tortured, bullied about remaining Muslim and married, and possibly raped.
The next day, the hearing was pushed up from 11 to 8 in the morning without notice to Rinkel's family; Rinkel's family and the Hindu community were denied access to the courtroom; and Rinkel, before a court brimming over with Pakistan Peoples' Party supporters, was judged to have married and converted to Islam of her own will. Mian Mithhoo and his associates crowded the streets in celebration -- holding a press conference to boast of their religious victory and conquest over Hindus.
On March 12th, the Supreme Court of Pakistan intervened and combined the case of Rinkel with two other cases of alleged kidnapping-forced conversion (Asha Kumari, a teenager, and Dr. Lata, age 29) on the petition of the Pakistan Hindu Council. At the first Supreme Court hearing, Rinkel cried out that she would rather die than be placed back in the shelter and wanted to go back to her parents; Dr. Lata asked to have time to talk to her father. Both requests fell on deaf ears. Rinkel and Dr. Lata were placed in a government women's shelter to mull over their future for three weeks without "outside pressure."
On April 18th, the Supreme Court issued its decision -- all three were old enough to decide their own fate. That the girls were kidnapped, forcibly converted, married under threats of harm and death to themselves and their family, and likely beaten, raped and tortured by their abductors or while in custody, didn't seem to concern the high court. And in continuance of the cases' kangaroo court process, the girls' alleged "wishes" to be returned to their "husbands" were recorded, not in open court, but behind closed doors.
Just this past weekend the LA Times covered another kidnapping story -- the story of Rachna Kumari. Rachna, a 16-year-old, was kidnapped last August in broad daylight by a police officer. Not only is this particular case disturbing and frustrating because of position of the perpetrator, but also because the family knew the officer well. Rachna's father is a priest of a small Hindu temple which the police officer was assigned to protect. After Kumari's family filed a complaint, the first time they were allowed to see their daughter after her abduction was in court. There she appeared in a black head to toe burqa, surrounded by nearly 100 supporters of the police officer and now "husband." In court, she submitted a written statement that she had willingly converted and married her abductor. A month after the hearing, Rachna managed to sneak away while out running errands with her new female relatives and went to her grandmother's for water. When asked why she left, she cried that she had been forced to do so. While he was temporarily placed on probation during the court proceedings, Rachna's abductor is back on the beat and recently reported his young wife "missing." Meanwhile, Rachna's parents have pulled Rachna's 13-year-old sister out of school and do not let her out of their sight.
Indeed, increased media attention is a start to increasing public awareness and pressure, but when are freedom-respecting citizens of the world and, especially those in Pakistan, going to step up to the plate and end this terror? How many Rinkels and Rachnas will have to face a life stripped of dignity and freedom of conscience? How many families are going to have to lose their cherished daughters to physical, psychological and religious violence? For now, we can at least stand up and speak out against our tax dollars going towards subsidizing a government that doesn't value the dignity, innocence, and aspirations of its Hindu and Christian daughters. And because we can, we must.