Kidnapped age 14, forcibly married and converted to Islam by her captor, Pakistan’s high court declared Maira Shahbaz should be ‘returned to her husband’.
Maira Shahbaz is a 15 year-old Christian girl with a harrowing, yet all too familiar story.
In April 2020, she was abducted at gunpoint on a street in Faisalabad, by three men. She was just 14. One of her captors, Mr Nakash, forcibly married her and claimed she converted to Islam. Maira escaped four months later and her case was taken to Lahore High Court, as Mr Nakash claims Maira is an apostate from Islam. Whilst her case was being processed and deliberated in court, the young teen was placed in a women’s shelter. Despite her testimony to the authorities, relaying rape and being forced to sign a document (most likely a declaration of conversion), the court ruled that she had converted to Islam and should return to her abductor.
She is currently in hiding with her family, whilst the UK government debates whether to grant her plea for asylum. Her case is a little reminiscent of Aasia Bibi’s, who was not granted asylum in Britain, after nine years of imprisonment on the basis of false accusations of blasphemy.
Perhaps Maira’s plea will have a different outcome. After Bibi left Pakistan, apoplectic clerics ordered their followers and appealed to the general Muslim public to kill her wherever they found her. I personally think that the British government felt they couldn’t guarantee Bibi’s safety if they granted her asylum, given the rise in anti-apostasy and religious minority violence in Muslim-majority diaspora communities.
I can recall meeting the wife and child of Tajamal Amar, who was hospitalised in 2017 after being viciously attacked by members of his own community. Tajamal had fled Pakistan with his family after suffering persecution for his Christian faith, thinking he was moving to a place of safety in relocating to Derby (north England) – only to suffer again for displaying a cross and poppies in respect of Memorial Day. Then of course, I know only too well my own experiences – an 18-year ordeal in a Muslim-majority community in Bradford, which culminated in a forced expulsion out of the city my siblings and I were born in. Personally speaking, I was relieved when Aasia Bibi wasn’t granted asylum, as I don’t believe she would have experienced the safety and peace she deserves.
Maira Shahbaz’s case is different. She is a minor who is in constant and immediate threat of being tracked down and re-abducted and must be relocated out of Pakistan as soon as possible.
The religious minority experience is increasingly desperate. Maira gave a statement to the police in which she stated her abductor filmed drugging and raping her, before coercing her to change her faith. She is a child who has clearly suffered unnecessary and immeasurable trauma and sexual exploitation – yet the High Court ruled she must return Mr Nakash despite compelling footage evidence of her abuse. Maira has essentially been dismissed as legal property in a wider context of systematic, large-scale abductions and coercive marriages – often to minor Christian and Hindu girls. It’s estimated that around 1,000 minority girls and women suffer this plight, but realistically the statistic is probably higher.
On 13th July, Aid to the Church in Need met with Home Secretary Priti Patel, Sir Edward Leigh MP, and Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, to push Maira’s case forward.
Maira lives in a country which fails to recognise her constitutional rights. The religious minority experience in Pakistan is an invisible one. Picture families hiding out in homes and locations they feel are unknown to those actively seeking them out. Picture them moonlighting and running in the cover night. This is the current ordeal of young Maira and her family – and countless, nameless others.