Pakistani weddings are extravagant affairs. Guestlists are filled with hundreds of names of relatives and friends. People come from various cities and even abroad for colourful celebrations filled with music and dancing. Often, brides’ homes are so packed with relatives that there is hardly room to move.
About a month or so before the wedding, smaller events take place at the homes of both the bride and groom. Friends and family begin to choreograph wedding dances and wedding songs to the rhythm of the dholak, a two headed hand drum.
A few days prior to the wedding, the Mayun takes place. This marks the start of the husband and wife-to-be being separated from each other until the day of the wedding, with brides beautifying themselves by refraining from wearing anything on their faces and undergoing herbal skin treatments to improve their complexion.
None of this occurred in the case of Arzoo Raja. In fact, this young Christian’s so-called ‘marriage’ is essentially a crime, because Arzoo was abducted on 13 October 2020 from the street outside her home in Karachi Railway Colony, Sindh Province, and forced to convert and to ‘marry’ a man more than twice her age. Under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, the legal age for marriage is 18, and being a child of 13, she was in no position to consent or escape.
Not marriage, but a human rights abuse
What happened to Arzoo is not marriage in any real sense of the word; it involves multiple and comprehensive violations of her fundamental rights and freedoms.
Had Arzoo been an adult getting married of her own free will, her family and friends would have been applauding, dancing and smiling on her wedding day. However, they were not even present and would have to pursue her abductor through the courts to have her returned home.
On 15 October, her parents were asked to present themselves at the police station where a marriage certificate was produced falsely stating that their daughter was 18 years old, had willingly converted to Islam and had consented to marry Ali Azhar, 44, who is believed to be her abductor. Evidence from the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and school records, however, confirm that Arzoo was 13 years old and in 6th grade at school at the time of her so-called marriage.
Arzoo’s parents launched a case in the Sessions Court Sindh, Karachi to challenge the claims in the document and demanded her release from Mr Azhar, who submitted his own court challenge.
In an Order dated 27 October 2020, the court said that Arzoo (addressed as Arzoo Fatima in the Order) had “contracted marriage with one Ali Azhar with her own free will and accord without duress and fear.” The court further noted in the Order that Ali Azhar and Arzoo Fatima were harassed by the police as a result of the First Information Report (FIR, required by police to open up an investigation) registered by her parents and that the couple should be left alone to “pass [a] happy life. [sic]” The court also stated that no arrests should be made in respect of the FIR and directed the Frere Station House Officer (SHO) to “provide protection to the newly wedded wife.”
Arzoo’s parents filed a legal application with the police asking them to remove her from her abductor’s custody into a shelter, arguing that court’s directive for the police to “provide protection” for her should be interpreted as protecting her from all illegal acts, including sexual violence, given that she is a minor. Her parents also filed a High Court petition for enforcement of all provisions of the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, which stipulates that the legal age for marriage is 18.
Finally, on 22 December 2021, Arzoo was returned to her parents after she testified that she wished to leave the refuge where she had spent a year. She is home now, but her struggles are not over.
Despite the multiple offences committed by Mr Azhar, in 2021 he was released on bail. While he escapes punishment, justice for Arzoo, and her family, remains elusive. His release speaks volumes about the impunity which perpetrators of abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion continue to enjoy in Pakistan.
Arzoo’s story is not an isolated one.
Arzoo’s story is not an isolated one. There are many women and young girls just like her. Cases like these, typically involving girls from Christian and Hindu communities, have increased in recent years, particularly in Punjab and Sindh. An estimated 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and women are kidnapped annually and subjected to rape, and forced conversion and ‘marriage.’ Girls from ‘low’ caste Hindu communities are particularly at risk.
When abductions occur, their families are put at a disadvantage by the religious discrimination they encounter from the courts and the police. Sadly, some women and young girls may never return to their families because of the lack of financial resources, education and support.
Unfortunately, much like it did for Arzoo and her family, justice often remains difficult to achieve. This is deeply worrying, especially when it is clear that the victims are minors and that they have been abducted and violated. Families whose daughters have been taken are reluctant to make a complaint or an FIR due to the inadequate investigative mechanisms undertaken by the police, who even dissuade them from reporting. The brave families that do file an FIR are harassed, threatened and intimidated by the abductor and his family. More often than not, victims are told that they contracted the marriage of their own free will and accord without duress and fear, and are instructed to return to their abductors. Perpetrators are left emboldened by this culture of impunity, and the voices victims and their families are silenced.
This should never have happened to Arzoo and it should never happen again to another woman or young girl. Enough is enough.
The severity and frequency of this issue prompted recent condemnation from the European Parliament, which adopted a resolution calling on Pakistan to address forced conversions, among many other human right violations.
Other members of the international community must follow suit in calling out these issues, given Pakistan’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which, among other things, obliges states to respect the right of children to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and to ensure they are not separated from their parents against their will.
The government of Pakistan itself must also do far more to address this scourge in its society, ensuring that law enforcement and the judiciary uphold the law in cases like that of Arzoo Raja, so that children are protected from these crimes.
By CSW’s Advocacy Intern Divine Olomo