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Pakistan's Institutionalized Discrimination Against Religious Minorities

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In June 2009, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, brought water to Muslim women working in a field with her. They rejected the water because a non-Muslim had touched it, and an argument ensued. In the aftermath of what should have been a minor incident, the leader of the local mosque accused Asia of blaspheming against Islam -- a charge she denies. She was arrested for violating Pakistan's archaic and overtly discriminatory blasphemy laws and sentenced to death in a trial in which Christian witnesses were not allowed to testify by a judge who refused to consider any possibility that Asia had not blasphemed. Although she has ostensibly been pardoned, influential Muslim extremists are calling for her death and offering rewards of nearly $6,000 USD for her assassination.

In Pakistan, blasphemy is punishable by death, and desecration of the Holy Quran carries a life sentence. Introduced in 1885, these laws are a British colonial legacy conceived of as a form of early anti-hate crime legislation -- the intent was to prevent the instigation of religious conflict. In 1927, they became part of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) in Section 295. The law protected all religious groups until 1982, when then-General Zia ul Haq introduced clause 295-B outlawing the desecration of the Holy Quran at the behest of extreme Islamist groups. In 1986, he added 295-C banning defilement of the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. These laws have been widely abused as a means of discriminating against and persecuting religious minorities. In 1993, 295-C was extended to apply to "defiling of the Prophet's family and companions." According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), at least 964 persons were charged under these anti-blasphemy clauses from 1986 to August 2009, while more than 30 persons were killed extra-judicially by the angry mob or by individuals.

The blasphemy law is only one of many institutionalized forms of religious discrimination in Pakistan. The Constitution declares Islam Pakistan's official religion and states that sovereignty belongs to Allah, effectively willing powers of legislation and legal interpretation to the Muslim clergy. Provisions of the Constitution, including Articles 227, 228, and 229, require that all laws be interpreted in the light of the Quran and that "laws shall be brought in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Quran and Sunnah."

Throughout Pakistan, members of religious minorities -- Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Ahmedis, and Buddhists, among others -- encounter discrimination, oppression, and abuse at the hands of both state and non-state actors. These men, women, and children are systematically politically, socially, and economically disenfranchised. Members of these minorities are also targeted as victims of random violence, sexual assault, abduction, forced conversion and marriage, and other forms of assault on the basis of small infractions or perceived slights. Their legal rights and protections are tenuous at best. Muslims are able to coerce members of religious minorities and even entire communities with threats of groundless legal accusations -- for example, forcing individuals not to report crimes and making communities abandon land.

Increasingly, Muslim men and communities abduct women and girls from religious minorities to force them into religious conversion and marriage. Under the Pakistan Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961, a girl must be at least 16 and a boy at least 18 before they marry, and both must consent. Police are required by law to investigate the ages of those entering into a marriage following the complaint of a parent. Moreover, the Contract Act of 1872 invalidates contracts whose signatories are younger than 18. Yet police often refuse to investigate or prosecute these crimes when a madrassa or Muslim cleric is involved.

The social and economic conditions faced by women of religious minorities are particularly inhumane, despite Pakistan's ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In urban areas, women from religious minorities can only find work as scavengers or in sanitation and receive unlivable wages -- less than $12 USD per month. Recent surveys have revealed that nearly 9 in 10 scheduled caste Hindu women (87 percent) were illiterate -- as compared to 63.5 percent of males of their community -- while the national illiteracy rate among Pakistani women is 58 percent. A nearly 40-point gap between the primary school enrollment rate of lower-caste women (10.2 percent of whom enroll) and the national rate for women (48 percent) exposes disparities in access to education.

Pakistan has legislation nominally guaranteeing religious freedoms, however, the government has not guaranteed the exercise of these basic rights or established protections and security for minorities. Article 20 of the Constitution refers to each citizen's freedom "to profess religion and to manage religious institutions." Article 33 charges the state with the responsibility to "discourage parochial, racial, tribal, sectarian and provincial prejudices among the citizens," while Article 36 ensures that the state "shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities." However, at the local and regional levels, illegal actions against religious minorities go unpunished and thus continue to propagate. Fear of reprisal keeps many victims from reporting abuses, while those who do report incidents see their allegations dismissed or inadequately investigated.

Pakistan must review its legal provisions and implement existing legislation to ensure all individuals' rights to freedoms of thought, conscience and religion -- as enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which it is a signatory. The state has to amend or revoke laws like those contained in Section 295 and the Constitutional provisions that permit and perpetuate discrimination. Further, from the local to the national level, members of the public and state officials must push police and prosecutors to proactively identify, investigate, and punish crimes against religious minorities.

Formal statements by government actors in support of religious tolerance and equality would challenge the belief that all officials condone discrimination, harassment, and violence against religious minorities. To address the underlying socio-economic inequality contributing to the disenfranchisement and subjugation of religious minorities in Pakistan, the state should support programs promoting the education of religious minority girls, the restoration of health facilities in predominately minority areas, and the provision of micro-credit loans to entrepreneurs to encourage their empowerment. Moreover, it is imperative that Pakistan ban bonded labor, which leaves women and children especially vulnerable to exploitation by employers. With respect to the marginalization and mistreatment of religious minorities, what Pakistan lacks is not a legal framework but genuine political will.