Christian minority women face unknown world in Pakistan
LYS ANZIA – WNN Features
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.
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