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LYS ANZIA – WNN Features
Minority girl from Sindh Province, Pakistan. Image: Alysha
During the recent days of battle in the northwest region of the Swat Valley, minority groups are leaving as quickly as possible. Although the majority of religious minorities in the Swat Valley are ethnic Pushtuns, with Sunni religious beliefs, Christian minority women and their families are also part of the fleeing force of refugees.
As violence continues between 4,000 Taliban splinter groups and Islamabad soldiers in the conflict of war, Christian minority refugees, global rescue agencies and Pakistan’s own army leaders nervously wait to see who, in the end, will end up controlling the region. Some Christian women and their families will be forced to stay behind as they have been unable to leave due to the expense of travel. Those who join the 100 degree Fahrenheit refugee camps also face problems with the sharing in handouts of food, an activity that is usually segregated among Sikhs, Hindus and Christians.
“Christian, Hindu and Sikh families have been forced to flee because the Taliban imposed on them Jizia, a tax levied on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule,” said Catholic Archbishop, Lawrence John Saldanha, in a letter released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “Now minority communities in the province are forced to endure unemployment, intimidation and migration,” continued the Archbishop’s message.
90% of Pakistani Christians live in Punjab with 50% living in rural villages. “Less than 2% of Pakistanis are Christians,” says a 2008 CNS – Catholic News Service report, although this number has been more recently set by United Nations agencies at a larger 4%. Half of Pakistan’s Christian minority population is Catholic, the other half Protestant.
Pakistan’s religious minorities
Minority religions and sectarian groups in Pakistan come from a vast collection of religious diversity which includes Christians, Buddhists, Ahmadis, Zikris, Hindus, Kalasha, Parsis, Sikhs and Shia Muslim sects, including Ismailis and Bohras. Ethnic regional groups come from 5 different communities, including the Baloch, Huhajir, Punjabis, Pushtuns and Sindhis.
Although 25% of religious minority women are not considered disadvantaged, Christian minority women who live on the bottom of society face many untold limitations. A policy of “living invisibly” with family members is often the only answer for protection for many minority Christian families who suffer under the great specter of poverty in Pakistan.
The most recent Pakistan 1998 census shows minority totals in the country to number somewhere between 11 to 13 million. Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus claim to have a population of 4 million each.
Marginalization of Christian minority women
Most of the families of Christian minority women in Punjab came, at the turn of the 20th century, from families that were originally from India. They came from dalit Hindu families who moved to what would later become the Pakistan region in 1947. Their legacy of isolation and separation from Indian society is ongoing. As dalits they were part of the lowest “untouchable” caste in India. This has been a nemesis that has followed them, even after they converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Basic women’s rights and human rights are often out of reach for these women who daily experience conditions of extreme poverty.
Dalit Christian women who have been severely marginalized often suffer from a shortage of even the simplest basic needs. Lack of health care is common. Slum conditions can also be found where families are forced to live on the streets or to live together in crowded poorly constructed shelters, amid garbage, toxic chemicals and refuse. Their structures often have no electricity, heat or clean water.
Because of these conditions, many dalit Christian women fall into lifetime careers as sewer cleaners, domestic servants or brick kiln workers. Payments for these positions are painfully low, or at times non-existent. Some employers give payment loans ahead to trap minority women, preventing them from ever paying the loans back as they continue to work for free on wheels of never ending debt bondage.
University educated Christian minority women, on the other hand, have quite an opposite experience. Because they are usually supported by family or a husband with money they fare much better among Pakistani society. These women usually have comfortable standards of living, a home their family owns and personal time for leisure activities. They also have much greater freedom with contacts and life opportunities.
The act of clustering poor dalit Christian minority women and families on church owned land or “colonies” has contributed to a much deeper degree of cultural segregation. While isolation and clustering is meant to provide safety, at times it has created more danger for families, as Islamic extremist groups identify Christian community locations to specifically plan their attacks.
A survey of Christian minority women in society
When a 2006 University of Birmingham, UK study was conducted among a wide span of Christian minority women in Pakistan, all women did mention that they had experienced what they called Muslim “name calling.” One derogatory name which is used commonly in Pakistan is “sweeper” which refers to the “worst of all” – a dalit Christian.
Both educated and uneducated Christian women admitted that they had been asked numerous times by others if they would convert to Islam. Some also experienced reverse discrimination when they befriended someone Muslim, as some of their Christian friends criticized them. One student said that her marks at school were lowered when her teacher realized she was Christian, but she also added her experience was, “not that difficult.”
Those who come from much greater disadvantaged backgrounds, on the other hand, shared much more serious grievances.
Women from disadvantaged backgrounds described how legal and police protection systems in Pakistan had failed minorities. For a few, this included their own experience or someone they knew who had experienced rape, assault or torture as Police forces did little to nothing to help them. In contrast, one woman who had police fail to protect her and her family, admitted enthusiastically that the Muslim owner of the factory where she worked “very happily” gave her a position of “influence” at her workplace.
“The general attitude in Pakistan is that if you are rich you are respectable and if you are poor you are not,” said another woman interviewed. Consensus in attitudes among all the women pointed to feelings that the less educated and “poorer” Muslims were, the more like they were to act from a “habit of discrimination.”
Literacy challenges for women in Pakistan’s Christian minority
As the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) gathered data on education for women in Pakistan (with the help of 900 civil and rights groups), in 2007, their shadow report revealed, “Pakistan has an extremely low female literacy rate with higher drop-out rates among girls before completing primary education. The social norms and practices prefer boys over girls for better education…”
Statistics show that education for the poorest ethnic and religious minority women has constantly been placed at the very bottom of Pakistan’s educational system goals.
With such little opportunity for public education in rural areas, the best chance for poor Christian minority girls to receive literacy training is for them to attend a Christian parochial school. Even this is often very difficult as Islamic Madrasas schools are moving to close all existing programs for minority girls education across Pakistan.
“We are at the beginning of a great storm that is about to sweep the country,” said Ibn Abduh Rehman, who directs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization. “It’s red alert for Pakistan.”
“The mindset wants to stop music, girls schools and festivals,” said Salman Abid, a social researcher in southern Punjab. Because of the rapid expansion of Madrasas schools in northern Pakistan, vandalism and burning of Christian schools and buildings has been increasing since 2002.
Attacks in the Muree region on a Christian school and violence against a chapel in Taxila Hospital have both been attributed to small terrorist groups like the (LJ) Lashkar i Jhangvi, a small Sunni splinter group numbering approx 100 members.
Current dangers facing Christian minority women and girls
Under-reported cases of rape against Christian women have occurred. In 2000, the rape of seven Christian women on a bus to Lahore was viewed by the larger Pakistani (Muslim) public as a “deplorable act.” In August 2007, Christian Bishop Arif Khan and his wife were murdered in Islamabad. That same month seven churches and five Christian settlements received threatening letters.
The intimidation of abduction, rape or violence of women and girls from minority religious families adds greatly to their vulnerability. Any legal recourse with police or courts, in working Pakistani law in their favor, is often very limited.
“In the weeks after the Islamabad (March 17, 2002) attack (on the Protestant International Church), I talked to many Pakistani Christians—Catholics, Protestants and Anglicans—in private homes and at dinners and church socials. Several discerned what they described as a larger pattern of violence directed not only at Christians, but at other religious minorities throughout the country,” said David Penault, associate professor at Santa Clara University, California, US.
There have been a number of reported cases of forced marriages of girls from religious minority communities who are under the age of 15. After separation from their family, abductions are framed with the pretext that their conversion to Islam was the reason for their kidnapping. In some cases, there may be a possibility that these are unidentified sex-trafficking kidnappings, but no study to date has been done to confirm this belief yet.
The list of abuse against poor Christian minority women and girls is long.
“Law enforcement personnel abused religious minorities in custody,” said the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report by the US Department of State. “Security forces and other government agencies did not adequately prevent or address societal abuse against minorities,” continued the report. “Discriminatory legislation and the Government’s failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different religious belief fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against religious minorities.”
Legislative tightening, Blasphemy Laws and Hadood Ordinances
In a reversal of restrictions under laws covering accusations by a husband against his wife in adultery, the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, had the intention to free 2,500 women from Pakistan jails in 2006. Unfortunately, this was not completed. Following this improvement, a more conservative interpretation of the law, through Shar’ia based legislation, was given more emphasis, causing greater restrictions in the courts.
As legal doors closed again more tightly, Christian women suffering from extreme poverty were left dangling in a forgotten field of legal ambiguity, no protection and “non-personhood.”
Even with the measured 2006 attempt to ease the 1979 Hadood Ordinances, which now allow women to report domestic violence and rape with one instead of the previously required three male witnesses, women still do not feel safe stepping forward to press their case. Blasphemy laws, that sanction anyone criticizing Islam also inflicts intimidation under the sentence of death by stoning. Stoning as a sentence in Pakistan’s courts has been used as punitive measures in quarrels against neighbors and against religious minorities.
For protection, minority women and their families, whether poor or middle class, often try to hide or mask their religious beliefs for safety at work and in public.
“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are so vaguely formulated that they encourage, and in fact invite, the persecution of religious minorities or non-conforming members of [the] Muslim majority,” said human rights advocates, Amnesty International.
Under reported cases of rape and torture of religious minority women and girls presents an ever present human rights crisis. Police corruption, along with abysmal Pakistani prison and jail conditions, creates an atmosphere of intimidation and non-accountability.
“Religious minorities need more than just fair treatment under the law, they also require visible cooperation from the police and authorities, to prevent mob justice taking over,” said Settlement Director, Nasir Saeed of (CLAAS) Center for Legal Aid Assistance, which has an office in Lahore and London.
In Oct 2007, Dr. Ms. Asma Jahangir, the now UN Special Rapporteur for UN Commission on Human Rights said, “The NWFP (North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan) presents a disturbing picture of religious militancy that is increasingly manifesting itself in vigilante actions against the population and creating widespread fear… The government has continuously refused to heed complaints and warnings from both the public and civil society organizations and has adopted a policy of appeasement of militants.”
“The government has chosen to look the other way when the militants have blown up girls’ schools and video shops, threatened teachers, students, doctors, nurses, NGO workers and barbers,” added Jahangir.
In Pakistan, there’s a very high price to pay for poor Christian women and their families – all part of the minority. This video shows unliveable conditions in Islamabad’s French Quarter, a sordid slum where Dalit Christians try to survive. See this 11:16 min April 16, 2009, France24 News video.
For more information on this topic go to:
Annual Report – Pakistan, 2009 – International States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Religious Minorities in Pakistan by Dr. Iftikhar H. Malik – Minority Rights Group International, 2002
State of the World’s Minorities 2008 – Pakistan – UNHCR, RefWorld
How wealth/poverty affects the treatment of Christian women in Pakistan by Anna-Joy Alves – International Development Department, School of Public Policy, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, United Kingdom, 2006
2007 Pushcart prize nominee, Lys Anzia, is a humanitarian journalist working on women’s rights and advocacy issues worldwide. She is also Editor-At-Large for Women News Network – WNN and current executive director for World Voice International.
Sources for this article include ReliefWeb, UNESCO, USAID, BBC News, UN Girls Education Initiative, Asian Human Rights Commission, Emory University, In These Times, The World Bank, CNS – Catholic News Service, USCIS, WLUML, UNHCR, Sindh Today, PILDAT, Aljazeera News, USCIRF, ActionAid, CLAAS, US Department of State, The Catholic Voice, Minority Rights Group International, The Malaysian Insider, Riz Khan – Aljazeera TV, AFP news
©Women News Network – WNN 2009