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WASHINGTON —A court in Islamabad on Thursday has ruled that two Hindu sisters from Sindh province, who were allegedly abducted and forced to marry Muslim men, voluntarily converted to Islam.
The court also states the women, Nadia, 18, and Asia, 19, who were formerly known as Reena and Raveena, respectively, are adults and free to make informed decisions for themselves according to Pakistani law.
The ruling came as the result of an investigation by a five-member commission that was formed after the women filed a petition to seek protection from their family. The sisters claimed they had been harassed and threatened for converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men.
“This was a sensitive matter, and we have investigated it thoroughly. I have personally met with the girls and their husbands, and it doesn’t seem the girls were abducted or forcibly converted,” Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson of National Commission on the Status of Women and a member of the newly formed commission, told the court, as reported by the local newspaper, Express Tribune.
Before Thursday’s ruling, the court instructed the government to take the sisters into protective custody until a decision was made.
News of their alleged abduction and conversion made headlines and became controversial in the majority-Muslim country last month when Hari Lal, the women’s father, appeared in a video condemning his daughters’ disappearance.
In another video that surfaced on various social media sites days later, Nadia and Asia are seen sitting with their husbands and a Muslim cleric, who claimed the women had accepted Islam freely and had not been forced to convert.
The videos prompted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to conduct an investigation. Authorities arrested several people belonging to the grooms’ families for their alleged involvement.
Authorities have not said anything about the fate of the arrested family members, but they could be freed following the court ruling.
Hindus, a religious minority who make up about 4% of Pakistan’s population of 200 million and largely live in the country’s Sindh and Punjab provinces, have long been concerned about the abduction of their teenage girls by Islamists.
They charge that so-called voluntary conversions and marriages are in fact legal cover for the kidnappers, whose young victims fear for their lives and their families’ if they speak the truth publicly.
Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a member of the Pakistan Hindu Council who was present in the court Thursday, told VOA that legislation is needed to ban forced conversion of religious minorities in Pakistan.
“Most of the cases are about Hindu girls of marriageable ages. You would not hear stories of older women being abducted,” Vankwani said. “Madrassas (Islamic seminaries) and Islamic clerics play a critical role. These girls are abducted and taken to the mosques directly where they are asked to embrace Islam and then married to Muslim men right away. This has been going on for quite some time in Sindh.”
Every year, about 1,000 young girls are forcibly converted to Islam across Pakistan, according to local rights groups and activists.
“The Hindu community says almost 1,000 girls in Pakistan are converted to Islam every year. We cannot verify the figure independently, but it does depict the problem this community has faced for so long,” Zohra Yusuf, a Pakistan-based rights activist, told VOA.
Local officials, however, charge that the girls often elope with affluent Muslim men to evade poverty, and convert to Islam because a marriage between a Muslim and Hindu is not permissible in Islam.
Pakistan’s Hindu population has significantly decreased in recent years, with many migrating to India to seek refugee status, citing religious persecution in Pakistan.
They have long complained of prejudice against them both from the government and society. A majority of them live in poverty in the Sindh and South Punjab regions of Pakistan.
“Laws in Pakistan and the prejudices in the society have contributed toward the persecution of minorities. Their rights are violated regularly, and they have little or no support from the law or the society,” Yusuf said. “When you do not provide protection and discriminate (against) them on the basis of religion, what other options are they left with?”
Madeeha Anwar is a multimedia journalist with Voice of America's Extremism Watch Desk in Washington where she primarily focuses on extremism in the South Asia region.
Follow Madeeha on Twitter at @MadeehaAnwar