The future of non-Muslims in a Muslim world
By Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS
(Islamabad): Let’s start with a stark fact: most data indicates that the world’s Muslim populations are growing while the number of Christians worldwide is on the decline. Though it is difficult to make firm demographic projections about such matters, it is important to recognize that the growth of Islam in northern Europe may well result eventually in Muslim-majority societies governed by Islamic law.
Now, if we are curious about what life might be like for non-Muslims who live in such societies, one place to look is Pakistan and its stance on human rights. Hindus constitute 1.6 % of the Pakistani population, and for so-called “Scheduled Caste” Pakistani Hindus – the people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, who used to be known by a variety of other names, such as “untouchables” and “outcastes” – living in Pakistan is a daily struggle.
I especially want to focus here on young female Pakistani Hindus. In 2009, Gajri, a fifteen-year-old girl who lived in Rahim Yaar Khan, was kidnapped by a neighbour, forced to convert to Islam, and forcibly married to her assailant at a madrassa (Islamic school). There have been hundreds of such incidents. Since the formation of Pakistan, very little has been done to legally guarantee the rights of non-Muslims, some of whose ancestors lived in this part of the world long before the Muslim armies laid claim to it.
The unequal treatment of lower-caste Hindus is not enshrined in Pakistani law. On the contrary, it is the Hindu caste system itself that victimizes these people. Yet while laws have been passed in India to combat this systematic discrimination, in Pakistan no politician has ever introduced such legislation.
Owing to discrimination by their higher-caste coreligionists, many of these lower-caste Hindus are not allowed to enter houses of worship in Pakistan. The government has done absolutely nothing to counter this. Exacerbating the plight of the lower-caste Hindus of Pakistan is the fact that they cannot obtain national identity cards. So it is that people whose forebears may have lived in this land before any Muslims arrived are, officially, without identity.
Take the case of Parmaisry Mai, a Scheduled Caste Hindu and a mother of three young daughters. She lives in the town of Rahim Yaar Khan with her husband and children. Like other Scheduled Caste Hindus, Mai had not travelled much around Pakistan, inhibited from doing so by her lack of identification papers. After their marriage, Parmaisry Mai took her first trip to Lahore, to which she travelled with her husband in order to visit a Hindu temple there.
At the gate of the temple, the coupled were asked to produce their national identity cards. Since they had none, they were not allowed to enter the temple. They suffered the same fate at a hotel where they tried to book a room for a night. Since they did not possess identity cards, they had not been able to obtain a marriage license – and in Pakistan, if a man and woman wish to spend the night together in a hotel room, they are required by law to produce a marriage licence. Since they could not afford to rent two separate rooms, they spent the night on a cold railway-station platform.
This refusal to grant lower-caste Hindus identity cards has also led to mass abuse of women. For when lower-caste married women are kidnapped for sexual exploitation or forced conversions, their lack of identity cards and marriage licenses, makes it impossible for them to press charges with the police or take their assailant to court.
When Daya, a fifteen-year-old Hindu girl living in the village of Aaklee in Tharparkar, was abducted from her home by a man named Mumtaz, she was also forced converted to Islam in a madrassa in Sumaro, Umerkot. The assailant and his father then proceeded to bully Daya’s fellow villagers, threatening to abduct more women for the same purposes if they contacted the authorities. In the end the villagers not only did not contact the authorities – they decided to leave the village entirely, relocating from their ancestral home.
It is a well known fact that Islamic seminaries in the rural areas of Pakistan openly incite hatred towards non-Muslims and encourage forced conversions. Kastoori Kohli, a seventeen-year-old, was gang-raped by a leading politician and three others. Her father complained to the police, but they turned him away. Only after human-rights activists became involved did the police allow a report to be filed. As a consequence of this police obstruction, a month went by before the girl underwent a proper medical examination – and as a result, in turn, of this delay, there ended up being insufficient forensic evidence to convict the perpetrators, who got off scot-free.
The problem is clear. Lower-caste Hindus in Pakistan, who were here long before there was such a thing as Islam, have no rights whatsoever. This state of affairs is crying out to be remedied. Hindu women belonging to the lower castes, after all, are doubly oppressed: they are victims not only of the systematic discrimination that is enshrined in their own religious tradition but also of the violence toward and subjugation of women that are an everyday reality of life under Islamic law. Their plight needs to be addressed – now.