Coercive consent? Unlocking the truth behind ‘disappearing’ women in Pakistan

Published on 5 February 2021

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities began its Inquiry into Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Girls this week through a series of (closed) hearings with activists and families who have been directly affected.

Research undertaken by CREID partners suggests that the fear of abduction, conversion and disappearance of women who belong to Hindu and Christian minorities is very real, especially in communities already marginalised by poverty, class and caste.

So what exactly are they worried about?

As the research shows, they worry that a young woman would suddenly not be found and, after reporting her disappearance to the police,  the family would be told that she had eloped with a Muslim man, married him, converted and that all contact with her is now prohibited.

Cases such as the above are not specific to Pakistan and feature in many contexts around the world. However, such extreme cases would often be associated with war settings or sex trafficking operations – both ultimately caused by the absence of justice and rule of law.  The critical issue in Pakistan is that the law not only enables the process of these disappearances but in many cases legitimises the new status quo.

When considering the strength of the feminist movement in Pakistan and also that Pakistan is a signatory to many human rights conventions, how is this possible? A key factor enabling this pattern to continue is consent. Did women elope to marry the man of their dreams and their parents couldn’t understand, so they claim abduction and forced conversion?

Obviously, if these disappearing women are leaving their families of their own accord, then surely the case would not stand? This is what Senator Kakar, the head of the parliamentary committee on forced religious conversions in Pakistan haves us believe, according to a statement he made in October 2020.

Senator Kakar claimed that most cases of forced conversion “have some degree of willingness on the part of the girl”. If these cases are informed by consent, not coercion, then it is the duty of the state and civil society to, in fact, protect the ‘disappearance’ of girls. Senator Kakar, like many others, draws on two justifications for why/how these disappearances are ‘consensual’ rather than coercive:

First, the small evidences that the man with whom the girl disappeared is no stranger (such as phone texts), and secondly, absence of evidence of physical force in her signing the marriage contract. These are the claims that activists and communities really struggle within their case for disappearing women – as if the absence of proof of physical assault is evidence of consent.

Yet this struggle is not new

Many years ago, in the UK and elsewhere, rape victims also struggled to have the legal system and society recognise that lack of violence does not equate with ‘consent’ and the fact that the person is known to them, even married to them, does not exclude (marital) rape.

That some women who disappear, of Hindu and Christian backgrounds, do so to marry Muslim men in Pakistan by choice does of course happen. However, the conditions and circumstances around their disappearance, in many cases, suggest that their willingness may be under conditions of grooming, thereby seriously questioning their exercise of free choice.

A predator who targets a woman from a member of a religious minority to win her over would do so initially through positive engagements, like kindness. This process of grooming doesn’t initially involve violence but that doesn’t mean that power is not utilised in entrapping her.

In the following phase, either promises are made of bright futures, or there is blackmail: threatening to disclose the relationship to her family, thereby bringing her great shame. Again, this can all happen without the use of physical force.

Yet, according to Senator Kakar, while a man may be exploiting a woman’s difficult predicament, this does not mean force.  Sulema Jahangir in ‘Forced conversions’ begs to differ:

“According to case law, exploiting a position of power to entice vulnerable people or subordinates to convert amounts to coercion, which should be outlawed…the default legal system in Pakistan is discriminatory, particularly towards women from religious minorities, coupled with the clout and resources of those preying upon them, implies coercion”.

Currently, Section 498-B of the Pakistan Penal Code makes it illegal to forcibly marry a girl against her will, and those convicted are liable to imprisonment from three to seven years and a fine of Rs 500,000, or both.

Forcible marriage

Perhaps the words ‘forcibly’ married can be amended to ‘coercively’ married so as to recognise the full set of conditions under which women sign marriage contracts?

Moreover, the evidence of “consent” in these cases really needs to be scrutinised. If the law of the land is that the minimum age of marriage is 18, can we really consider a relationship between a 13 year old Hindu girl and a 50+ year old married man with children as consensual?

Again, as Jahangir pointed out: “Sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape and carries a death sentence or a minimum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. There is no defence. Yet in some cases a conversion certificate and a nikahnama influences law enforcement to pardon the abductors”.

The case that Jahangir describes is in stark contrast with how grooming cases are generally handled elsewhere now – even if girls show “willingness” to have entered into a relationship, it is still considered predatory and entailing an abuse of power.

In Pakistan, the pardoning of the predator means not only a legitimation of his process of grooming but apparently ‘blesses’ his access to the young woman to rape and abuse her. The recognition of the marriage and her conversion makes her subjugation never-ending. For her to acquire a divorce would be very difficult and she cannot revert back to the faith she held before converting, as to leave Islam would now be considered apostasy.

Those seeking to continue legitimating the ideologically-motivated grooming of women who belong to religious minorities reduce the issue of such women and girls’ disappearance to one of the distorted notions of ‘absence of force’ or even evidence of willingness to be in contact with the predator. Herein lies the most critical issue that obstructs the advancement of justice hinders the mobilisation of a substantial cross-section of society in solidarity and prevents the introduction of ‘zero tolerance’ into any policy against the continuation of this phenomenon in Pakistan.

Being the target of predatory men wishing to convert and marry Hindu and Christian women needs to be given its real name: ideologically motivated sexual grooming.

By recognising this as such, the focus of any inquiry into what accounts for the incidence of disappearing girls and women should not be whether there is ‘evidence of violence’ or ‘knowing’ the person, but whether there is evidence of coercion and predation. This will inform the next phase of research for CREID in Pakistan.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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