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From exclusion to violence: The case of religious minorities in Pakistan

23 August 2022

By Naumana Suleman, South Asia Coordinator at Minority Rights Group International

Today is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. On August 12, it was reported that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (or the Pakistani Tablian) returned to Matta Tehsil in northern Pakistan, raising concerns not only among the citizens of the district, but also among all citizens of Pakistan, and particularly those from religious minority communities. In the past, religious minority communities have particularly suffered from the violent attacks from the group.

I can relate to the concerns of Pakistani citizenry and particularly of the minority communities. As a member of a religious minority community and someone who happens to be from Yuhannabad, where two churches were attacked in 2015 by suicide bombers, with a faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claiming responsibility for them. Those bombings claimed 21 lives and injured around 100 people.

My mother was in the church where that suicide bombing happened. My father went out to look for her right after the blasts. At that moment, my whole world turned upside down. After a few minutes, fortunately, my father came back with my mother. But the extent of her trauma after witnessing all that bloodshed was unexplainable. This was not an end to our misery, as many of our acquaintances lost their lives.

From violent attacks like this, to social exclusion and harassment, in Pakistan minority-religion members face discrimination daily. This causes socio-political and economic exclusion, and severe marginalization in all aspects of life. In a country that is 96 per cent Muslim, the targeting of its religious minorities (3 per cent) is widespread, especially for Shi’a, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians.

Victimization on the basis of religion or belief severely affects religious minority communities, but particularly adds layers of jeopardy for minority women and girls. This ranges from social exclusion and stigmatization to violations including; abduction, statutory rape, grooming, forced conversion and underage marriage. Doubly marginalized by their gender and minority status, the majority of religious-minority women in Pakistan work in sectors like agriculture, sanitation, in brick kilns or as domestic workers. Only two percent of minority women work as teachers, doctors, nursing, professors or in an office, evidencing their economic marginalization. Having personally faced victimization on the basis of religion or belief, including in the workplace itself, I resolved to enter a career working to uphold human rights, particularly minority rights.

Several years ago, when I was working as a private employee in a government-run school, a group of Muslim teachers argued with other Muslim teachers about why they sat and ate with me, as I am a Christian. They said that eating with me is against their faith, using a derogatory and discriminatory word for me. The few teachers who were friends with me argued back, telling them that eating with me was not against Islam, and that we are all equal as human beings.

One of those conservative teachers even asked me multiple times to convert to Islam, in violation of my right to Freedom of Religion or Belief. At this same school, a student once injured himself. The school principal then tried hard to frame me as the person who injured the student. The matter was only cleared later when the student spoke out.

Having had these experiences of victimization, I decided to send my daughter to a Church-run school and college, rather than any government or private school, so she would not face what I have. Girls from minority religions who are educated outside of faith or community run schools are more vulnerable to violence and discrimination, and more often than not, they find their education and social mobility severely affected. This vicious cycle of discrimination and economic marginalization is acutely felt by those in the poorer strata of society, most of whom are indeed from Christian and Hindu or scheduled-caste communities.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. More than two decades ago, my family was temporarily living near my college so I could commute easily. During our stay there, my mother and an aunt, a Muslim by faith, from the neighbourhood gradually developed a bond of sisterhood. Years later, in 2015, the day after the church bombings, roads were blocked by protests. Despite the risks, my Muslim aunt and her son endangered their lives and reached our place to support my family. They even offered to host my family at their place to keep us safe until the situation was settled. No doubt, the bond of humanity, love, and respect knows no faith.

The government of Pakistan needs to take comprehensive measures to protect, promote and fulfill the rights of all Pakistani citizens from victimization on the basis of religion or belief. The state must guarantee equal rights of Pakistani minorities in every sphere of life. This can be done through initiatives ranging from constitutional, legal, political, and educational reforms, to affirmative initiatives in order to eliminate discrimination and inequality from society. The international community must make more concrete efforts to support the cause.

Photo: A protest against forced conversion of Hindu girls in Pakistan, organised by Pakistan Hindu council, 8 August 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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