By Jayaa Jaggi
Sikhs constitute a small religious minority in Pakistan. In 2012, government statistics indicated that about 7,000 Sikhs lived in Pakistan, mainly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including the semi-autonomous tribal region that borders Afghanistan. The community, which may number as many as 20,000 people across the country, has been victimized by discrimination and violence over the years due to its religious affiliation.
While the world is celebrating achievements for space exploration similarly, on the other hand, a large number of teenage girls from Christian, Sikh and Hindu Communities in Pakistan are deprived of the fundamental human rights of education and freedom of movement due to the constant torment of forced conversions. The menace of forced conversions has affected all the religious minority groups. Minor girls are abducted, threatened, and, subsequently, converted to Islam. This fear is constantly on their minds and impacts the decisions they and their family members make in daily life. Many are forced to convert to Islam as Sharia law allows marriages under 16 if both parties are Muslims. Though the highest percentage of forced conversions are recorded in Sindh, other Punjab and KPK are also witnessing a rising number of forced conversions.
After the 2005 earthquake, many Sikh families had moved to Hassanabdal, a city in District Attock, from KPK, searching for better socio-economic facilities. But the constant terror of forced conversions surrounds the families. An investigation had been launched to look into allegations that members of the Sikh religious minority have been forced to convert to Islam in KPK. Hangu district’s Sikh community filed a complaint in 2017, accusing a government official who forced them to convert to Islam.
In Addition, a first information report (FIR) was filed in Nankana police station on August 28, 2019, against six people accused of abducting and forcefully converting 19-year-old Sikh girl Jagjit Kaur to Islam, changing her name to Ayesha.
Similarly, one such family narrates how their life looks like under this never-ending trepidation. When I interviewed them, they shared an experience by keeping the details anonymous that in Hassanabdal, a Sikh girl was converted to Islam, which caused apprehension among the entire Sikh community, especially those living in the vicinity. Even today, parents fear their kids might be taken away and converted forcefully to Islam. They keep their kids under strict supervision all the time and do not allow them to leave the house without being accompanied by an elder.
This sense of fear restricts the young Sikh girls from acquiring education and pursuing their careers as they drop out of school early. It’s evident why religious minorities lag in education and financial stability. To learn more about the unfortunate realities of the Sikh community girls, Ravadar blogs interviewed Jasleen Kaur*, a teenage Sikh girl studying in a private school.
Kaur, 16 years old, who sat for the interview, said, “Due to the threat of forced conversion, parents do not allow their girls to continue education, rather they are forced to marry at such a young age.”
She added, “My father drops me to school and comes to pick me up. Even though the house is nearby, we do not commute alone as we fear someone might kidnap us.”
She also shared that she regularly gets ‘invitations’ to be converted to Islam from her class fellows. They regularly try to convince her to change her religion, and she rejects them. Still, it brings an uncomfortable feeling, and she wants this practice to stop.
This is again a violation of fundamental human rights. We, as a society, have failed to respect the personal choices and decisions made by others, especially when it comes to religious beliefs. Our state has failed to protect religious minority communities against this heinous crime. Despite being the voices raised against the increasing number of cases of forced conversions, the state is unable to curb this crime and let it thrive unchecked.
Kaur’s parents also expressed their grievances in the interview that Sikh Community lacks resources to take a stand against forced conversions, and the only option left for them is to stop their girls from receiving education. They shared that they wanted their girls to study, but they could not risk their lives. They have to be very careful about the security of their young kids.
They said that most girls study until the 8th standard while others do not ever enter schools. It also becomes a mental and physical burden on them, and they live in continuous trauma, especially when they hear such incidents happening in the surrounding. Even those who report such cases are targeted.
Kaur’s parents hope for a safe and secure Pakistan without forced conversions, one in which they can practice their religion freely, let their children play in the park, and ensure that their daughters receive education and succeed in life. Kaur wished, “If there were no threat of forced conversion, we would have moved around freely.”
Forced conversions severely impact the psychological well-being of Sikh families and the community at large which causes a feeling of distress, anxiety, loneliness, rage, and annoyance among them. Though various authorities deny the incidents of forced conversions and try to prove it baseless by the emerging evidence and testimonies, therefore, our civil society, academia, religious institutes, and decision-makers should stand together to combat this crime. We cannot afford to let it flourish unchecked anymore.
*Note: Names and places have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.