Catholic Attorney Fights Forced Marriages in Pakistan

Sumera Shafique just won the case of an underaged victim of abduction and forced marriage in Pakistan. Thousands more are still waiting for their freedom.

Reeha Saleem stands next to attorney Sumera Shafique.
Reeha Saleem stands next to attorney Sumera Shafique. (photo: Reeha Saleem stands next to attorney Sumera Shafique. / Sumera Shafique)

She immediately felt that something was off. Reeha Saleem had walked these streets a thousand times. Her school was not too far away from her home in the Punjab province of Pakistan. Usually, she felt safe around here. But not this day. She considered running away at first. Then she tried to scream. Several firm hands grabbed her and pulled her inside a car. Her cries went unheard. Nobody intervened. Nobody seemed to take notice.  

In hindsight, she wished she had chosen another path home. However, it wouldn’t have changed anything. The person who had abducted knew her well. He had watched her many times, while she was playing in the garden, helping her mother with the groceries, leaving the house for school. His name was Muhammad Abbas, and he was Saleem’s neighbor. He loved watching her. He desired her. So, he decided to marry her.  

Belonging to Pakistan’s Christian minority, the 17-year-old was easy prey. She was a part of a very vulnerable group in society. After her abduction, she was forced to convert to Islam and marry her tormentor. Her mother tried to help her daughter, but there was only little she could do.  

Saleem’s story is one of thousands in Pakistan and many other countries. UNICEF estimates that, worldwide, 650 million girls and women alive today were forced into marriage as children. U.N. Women estimates that one  in every three girls in developing countries is married before reaching the age of 18, and one in nine is married under age 15. More than 100 million are estimated to have been forced to marry.  

Once subjected to such an ordeal, it is almost impossible for the girls to run away. There are several factors that keep the victims from escaping forced marriages.  

Sumera Shafique knows all about the situation that the young women find themselves in. As a Catholic, she also belongs to a Christian minority in Pakistan and has herself experienced what it means to be treated as an inferior person. However, Sumera did not accept this treatment and chose instead to stand up for her dignity and the dignity of all women in her home country. She became an attorney and started to advocate against forced marriages.  

 “We live in an honor culture,” Shafique explained. Girls are thought to have brought shame to their families if they are willingly or unwillingly sexually associated with a man. There is a stigma attached with sexual exploitation in Pakistani society.  

“Unfortunately, some families are not forthcoming in accepting their daughters, even when they approach them for help,” Shafique added. Some abducted girls were filmed during the abuses they had to endure in order to be blackmailed later. If they would run away, these videos would be put onto social-media channels to shame them and their families.  

Another factor why girls stay in forced marriages is their families’ inability to afford legal means. This is especially true for cases involving Christian girls. Being part of a religious minority often also means limited access to a good education and well-paying jobs. The parents are often very poor and unable to seek and afford expert legal help for the recovery of their daughters.  

That is why Shafique founded an NGO in Pakistan, to help cases such as Saleem’s. Free of charge, Shafique and her team brought the girl’s situation to the knowledge of a Pakistani court and asked the judge to annul the marriage. The annulment is key. Without it, women such as Saleem could be easily accused of apostasy, which means the abandoning of a religion, in this case Islam, if they simply run away from their abductors. Implied with the marriage is the conversion to Islam.  

Apostasy is a serious crime in Pakistan and could be penalized with a death sentence. Leaving their brutal husbands could put these women in mortal danger, with the police actively looking for them to arrest them. With the help of the international Christian advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, Shafique was successful in having Saleem’s case heard by a judge.  

The Catholic advocate outlook is realistic: “The laws are present but, unfortunately, they are not applied or followed effectively. In cases involving forced conversion and marriages of minority girls, we have observed that both the police and judicial officers become easily prejudiced. They tend to help the perpetrators instead of following the law.”  

Shafique mentions many other examples, where an underaged Muslim girl marries of her own will, but judges send her back in her parents’ custody. If the case involves a girl belonging to a religious minority, “the judges often declare her sui juris, according to the Islamic principle of Balooghat, or age of maturity, wherein a girl is considered as an adult if she has had her first menstrual cycle. There is clearly a disconnect between penal and Sharia law in our country,” the lawyer explained.  

Despite the fierce legal reality, there are reasons for hope. After five years, the Family Court in Pattoki, Pakistan, decided that Saleem had been forced to sign her marriage certificate during her captivity. Saleem was able to deny that she had converted to Islam and confirmed her Christian faith. Her abductor, Muhammad Abbas, was ordered before court but did not comply. 

The young woman’s mother, Parveen Saleem, was overjoyed to learn of the annulment of her daughter’s marriage: “We’ve faced indescribable difficulties during this time, including being forced to go into hiding.”  

When the young woman finally decided to run away, Saleem’s abductor kept threatening the family to return “his wife.” She is now planning to continue her education, which ended abruptly in 2019, when she was abducted.  

Not all cases of forced marriage end so positively, but attorney Shafique is convinced that “if a case is pursued with perseverance and dedication, there is always a possibility of winning freedom for the girl. Dealing with cases of forced conversion and marriage requires expertise and certain techniques that comes with practice.”  

Also, she added, a lot depends on the victim’s family and how long they can sustain pressure and threats from the accused.  

Shafique has fought and won quite a few cases such as Saleem’s. She is now dreaming of building a safe house for victims of forced marriage, where they can be treated for the physical and mental traumas they suffered during their captivity. She also wants to encourage them to become champions of their own cause and stand up for others who suffer the same fate:

“I believe that no one can be a better influencer for young girls than those who have experienced the ordeal of captivity and exploitation.”