Karachi: the 13-year-old Arzoo, forcibly married, is rescued and 44-year-old alleged husband arrested
by Shafique Khokhar

The Sindh High Court has reviewed its judgment and wants to investigate the case. Their rethinking is the result of pressure from public opinion, Christian and Muslim, and the intervention of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, president of the Pakistani People's Party. A law against the marriage of minors, approved in the Senate, is at a standstill in parliament because it is "contrary to Sharia law and Islam". Pakistan ranks sixth in the world for the number of child brides.


Karachi (AsiaNews) - Arzoo Raja, the 13-year-old girl kidnapped, forcefully converted to Islam and married against her will to Ali Azhar, a 44-year-old Muslim, can be freed.

In a U-turn on a previous ruling delivered on 30 October, the Sindh High Court decided to send Arzoo Raja to a safe haven (Darul Aman, "women's refuge"), separating her from Ali Azhar, and to arrest the latter on charges of kidnapping, perjury and marriage with a minor.

To justify their "rethinking", the judges have turned the blame on the investigating officers. Jibran Nasir, an activist, told the media that "the court criticized the role of the police for not following the orders given, regarding the protection of the child, and stated that it had instructed the police to continue investigating the case and do a test to determine the girl’s age".

After Arzoo was kidnapped, her parents filed a kidnapping report. But the alleged husband, Ali Azhar defended himself by saying that the girl was 18 years old and that she freely converted to Islam and married him without compulsion.

But the parents presented the girl's birth certificate confirming her age as a minor: 13 years old.

Jibran Nasir explained that the Court will address three points: the girl’s age; if she was converted by force; if she was forcibly married.

In these days a video was posted to social media in which Arzoo declares that she converted to Islam of her own free will. But activists and relatives say the video was extorted from her because "the child was brainwashed", since she doesn't even know the ABC of Islam.

Perhaps this is why, in the end, the judges decided to separate Arzoo from her alleged husband and have her reside in "Darul Aman".

The judges’ position was certainly influenced by the campaign that activists, Christian organizations, women's associations have launched for several days. But the intervention of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, president of the Pakistani People's Party (PPP), was especially important.  In a tweet on October 30 he wrote had said that “GOS (Government of Sindh) will approach the courts to review the #ArzooRaja underage marriage case, clear up any misunderstanding the honourable court may have, and do everything in their power to provide justice, and the PPP-led provincial government had passed the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act in 2013 and it will “continue to fight for it to be implemented”.

Diego Saleh, vicar general and director of the Karachi Justice and Peace Commission, confirmed that Arzoo is now in a protected place. He thanked all the people, Christians and Muslims, who acted and prayed for her. And he especially thanked the Sindh government and the police for their efforts in recovering the 13-year-old girl. But - he added - "our struggle is not over, it is only at the beginning because there are still hundreds of Arzoos waiting for justice and a freedom".

 

Allama Muhammad Ahsan Siddiqui, coordinator of the Inter-Religious Commission for Peace and Harmony, strongly condemned the alleged marriage of Arzoo and other underage girls, to whatever religion they belong. Allama Ahsan also demanded that the government of Pakistan and that of Sindh province resolve this problem and take serious steps against these incidents.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Naveed Walter, president of the Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) association, pointed out that Arzoo's is a case to be studied for the way in which, thanks to the support of many, the kidnapper was arrested.

However, he stressed that it is important to implement the law against child marriages in Sindh and the other Pakistani provinces. According to Naveed, the number of kidnappings, forced conversions and forced marriages is growing and worrying, and the government faces only a few cases that have become a little more famous.

He recalls that in May 2019, a law was discussed and approved in the Senate prohibiting the marriages of minors under 18. But its implementation stopped in parliament. Here, some members of the assembly and the government, linked to the ministry of religious affairs, opposed the law because the Council of Islamic Ideology was strongly opposed to it because it went against Sharia law and Islam.

According to UNICEF figures, 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18 and 3% are married before the age of 15. Pakistan ranks sixth in the world for the number of child brides.

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