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A Hindu woman’s fight for identity

In Pakistan, there is no law for registering Hindu marriages. As a result, Hindu married women are unable to get their National identity cards that show their ‘married’ status or bear their husband’s names. This is a violation of Hindu women’s civil rights as Pakistani citizens, and leads to several social and economic problems for them.

Despite being a large religious minority in Pakistan, Scheduled Caste Hindus face dual discrimination as a minority in a Muslim country and as “lower caste” among fellow Hindus. As shared by the Hindu communities, lack of NIC and marriage registration has resulted in many domestic, social and psychological problems for the Hindu families, especially women and girls.  Hindu married couples face numerous problems in travelling and lodging outside of their place of residence. Due to an absence of NIC and marriage registration mechanism, scheduled caste Hindu women do not get any share in their husbands’ property, and their access to health facilities and participation in social, economic and political processes is also minimal. According to them, for years Hindu women (already married to Hindi men and having children) have been abducted or forcibly converted to Islam and re-married to Muslim men without their consent. Since there is no documentation to prove the earlier marriage, their husbands or other family members are unable to take up the issue on legal grounds.

Twenty four years old Permaisry Mai, mother of 3 girls, belongs to the scheduled[1] caste Hindu community from Rahim Yar Khan, South Punjab. Her husband Gomand Jee makes a humble living by selling shoes in Chowk Bahdur Pur, about 12 kilometres from Rahim Yar Khan City.

Hindu Women in Permaisry’s town generally do not travel outside their village. Many of them are uneducated due to unavailability of girls’ schools, discriminatory attitude in the educational institutions and other socio-cultural barriers that prevent women, especially those belonging to the religious minorities, from getting an education.

Permaisry’s first visit out of Rahim Yar Khan was with her husband when they went to pay respects at a Hindu temple in Lahore. Due to security reasons, they were asked to show their identity cards at the entrance. Permaisry Mai, like other Hindu women, did not have an NIC and hence the couple was refused entry into the temple. Later they were denied accommodation in a hotel as they could not produce an evidence of their marriage (In Pakistan, Islamic laws prohibit unmarried couples to cohabit). They had to spend the night at a railway platform, under the open sky. “I can never forget that cold night and the humiliation.”  Says Permaisry.  

Once back in her hometown, Permaisry applied for her NIC that would show her ‘married ‘status.   She was asked for her marriage registration form and that’s when she realised the root cause of the problem. She did not have a marriage registration form! 

“I don’t have it, my mother didn’t have it, and even her mother didn’t have it. We only get married on verbal vows, there is no registration mechanism and this is why we can’t get an NIC on our husband’s name, we have no proof of our marriage”

Disconcerted by the grave structural flaws, and not having any other recourse, Permaisry and her husband decided to raise the matter with Scheduled Caste Rights Movement, a struggle supported by ActionAid since 2008.

With her consent, Permaisry Mai’s case was shared with the media as a test case exemplifying the problems of thousands of scheduled caste Hindu women in Pakistan.

ActionAid supported SCRM to draft Pakistani Hindu Marriages Registration Bill 2009 in consultation with Hindu Religious scholars and the Hindu community. It was submitted to the Ministry of Minority Affairs & Ministry of Human Rights. Throughout this process, print and electronic media were engaged as strategic partners and several television programmes, interviews of minority groups, newspaper articles and features were developed to strengthen the campaign.

As an outcome of the consistent struggle, the Supreme Court of Pakistan on 23rd November 2009 took Suo Moto notice of the issue and ordered National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) to issue an NIC to Permaisry Mai showing her married status. Concerned authorities were also urged to legislate for the registration of Hindu marriages.

This was a huge breakthrough for thousands of Hindu Pakistanis and a realisation of their long standing demand.  With this order, Permaisry Mai became the first ever Hindu Women to have fought and won a legal case to claim her right to identity.  “I have learnt from this success that if you don’t get your rights, you fight for them. ActionAid taught us how to do that. None of this would have been possible without their support.” Says a happy and jubilant Permaisry

The ordeal is not yet over. Scheduled Caste Hindu community is still awaiting action on Supreme Court’s directives.  For Permaisry Mai, issuance of a National identity card is indeed a big success, but it does not solve the long standing problems of thousand of scheduled caste Hindu women in Pakistan. They are demanding legislation for marriage registration.  In order to revive the struggle of scheduled caste Hindu minority for their rights, including their right to registration of marriages, ActionAid Pakistan is supporting SCRM to launch a campaign in year 2011 with a clear cut demand from the government and policy makers to pass legislation for Hindu marriage registration.