Forced Conversion

While most cases of forced conversions and underage marriages remain unresolved owing to the various flaws in our systems, there is some hope in the Arzoo Raja case which made headlines late last year.

The 13-year-old Christian girl had gone missing from her house in Railway Colony, Karachi on October 13, 2020. Her neighbour, Azhar Ali, reportedly kidnapped and forcibly converted her to Islam before marrying her. However, her parents approached the courts claiming it was an underage marriage and forced conversion, and since then the matter has been going through the grinding wheels of justice. At present, Arzoo is residing in a shelter home as per the court’s orders while her alleged husband is out on bail.

Social activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir, who is representing Arzoo’s family, appeared hopeful about the outcome of the case. He regretted the delay in its resolution and explained that other than the usual delays, the matter may drag on even further as the Sindh High Court has bifurcated the trial wherein the magistrate will hear the child marriage case while the sessions court will oversee the rape case.

Arzoo’s father, Raja Laal, said he will not back off despite the hindrances and fight until her daughter reunites with her family. “It has been four months and we have been living in a state of fear. We step out of the house only to attend hearings or in an emergency,” he shared, adding that they have met Arzoo only a couple of times since she shifted to a shelter home.

“I am disappointed when I think that how Azhar is out on bail. He belongs to an influential family while we don’t. But we believe the law will help us,” he added.

Talking about the Azhar’s actions, Nasir wondered if he ever thought that he is doing all this with a 13-year-old child who cannot make her own decisions. “It is a pity that we don’t consider underage marriage a rape until the girl’s body is found in a dumpster,” he lamented.

Pastor Ghazala Shafiq, a prominent member of the city’s Christian community, has been dealing with families of victims of forced conversions. Soon after Arzoo’s case caught media attention, pastor Shafiq knew Arzoo’s family will face pressures and threats, so she suggested a new and safe place for them to live.

Many Muslim men use marriage and conversion as a cover for rape, claimed Shafiq, adding that Azhar did the same as he didn’t think it’s a criminal act to brainwash a minor girl and separate her from her family. “Muslim men target girls in their early teen because it is easy to persuade and threaten them,” she added further.

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