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Asia

Is Pakistan's Hindu marriage bill a vow of tolerance?

The Hindu minority in Pakistan will soon be able to legally register its marriages and divorces with the state. What does this mean for the rights of the community, and why did it take so long? DW examines.

Throughout the nearly seven decades since Pakistan's founding, married Hindu couples have had no way to officially prove they were wed. This meant that couples could struggle to obtain state benefits, a widow could lose claim to her inheritance, and married Hindu women could be abducted and forced to remarry with little recourse.

But this is set to change fast. The long-stalled Hindu Marriage Bill, allowing the minority to register its marriages and divorces, has seen a recent burst of momentum and is now working its way through the country's legislatures.

Sindh, the country's southern province, became the first province to pass the bill on February 8. Hindus make up 2.5 percent of the 174 million people living in Pakistan. The majority of them, over 90 percent, live in Sindh.

The landmark bill is being hailed as a long-awaited step forward for Pakistan's Hindus and women and - at a time of great insecurity for the country's minorities - a rare triumph of tolerance.

What finally brought this bill to life after decades of inaction? And how big of a step forward is it?

Long untouched

Pakistani daily The Express Tribune saw the extended failure to codify marriage for some three-million citizens as "something of a mystery." But Dr. Farhat Haq, Professor of Political Science at the Illinois-based Monmouth College and fellow at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center, boils it down to two words: "inertia and neglect."

Marriage laws in Pakistan, as in India, have long been separated by religion, first formulated under British rule. After independence and partition in 1947, India went to work on reforming family law for its majority Hindu population while Pakistan focused on laws for Muslims. Regulations on Christian marriage, meanwhile, carried over from agreements established by Britain. The question of how to regulate Pakistan's dwindling Hindu minority hardly came up.

A Hindu wedding is celebrated in Karachi

A Hindu wedding is celebrated in Karachi

"It wasn't necessarily Pakistan saying 'we don't care about Hindus,'" Dr. Haq told DW. "Basically, what these laws are doing are transforming cultural practices," she added.

For this reason, the expert believes, India left Muslim family law untouched, not wanting to interfere with the internal affairs of a minority. And until recently, Hindus in Pakistan never pushed too hard for marriage laws. If they had, they would have come up more against Pakistan's uneven lawmaking past.

A breakthrough

It has become increasingly obvious though that a lack of marriage regulation sometimes means a lack of rights. Bank accounts are harder to open. Visas are harder to obtain. A couple has trouble immigrating without the right documentation.

Fortunately, when the push finally came, a democratizing Pakistani government was ready to embrace it. The country's two largest political parties, the ruling conservative Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) and the center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have both courted Hindu support. This is in part due to the outsize presence Pakistan's minorities are given in the present government, due to separate, protective representation laws.

It also has to do with public relationing. "The government is very concerned about the image Pakistan has earned in the last 10-15 years of being an intolerant place which is oppressive of minorities," Dr. Haq said.

The PPP, which holds a majority in the provincial assembly of Sindh, hailed the passing of its bill as a sign of its tolerance.

Chaudhry Mahmood Bashir Virk, the PML-N chairman of the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) standing committee that first passed the bill to federal and province legislatures, framed it as a common-sense moral obligation. "If 99 percent of the population is afraid of one percent, we need to look deep inside what we claim to be and what we are," he was quoted as saying by Pakistani media.

A turn towards tolerance?

But matters are never so simple. There may be limited opposition to the measure, but this does not mean there is no animosity towards Pakistan's Hindu population. Rather, according to Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the National Endowment of Democracy in Washington DC and a former member of Pakistan's parliament, there has been "a steady decline in religious tolerance" since Pakistan's founding.

The continued existence of Pakistan's blasphemy law has been, in Dr. Haq's words, like a "sword hanging over the heads of minorities."

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), dozens of people have been murdered since 1990 following accusations of blaspheming Islam, which are leveled disproportionately against minorities.

And the turn towards democracy has struggled to contend with the rise of organized and vicious Islamist groups. HRW also reported in 2013 that 20-25 kidnappings and forced conversations of Hindu girls were taking place in Sindh province every month.

Given attacks carried out on minorities with near impunity, a report by the US Commission on Religious Freedom recently described the situation there as at an "all-time low."

When it came to the Hindu Marriage Bill, though, "Islamist groups just didn't have a dog in the fight," Dr. Haq said. Something like marriage law is too fundamental to object to.

Hardline Islamic politicians did have a say, however. The bill was submitted for "sharia vetting" six months ago, and a clause was added that nullifies any marriage between Hindus if one partner converts religions. The Pakistan Hindu Council has called for the removal of this clause, worrying that this leaves this door open for forced conversions.

An small but important step

In light of the long way still to go, Heather Barr, a senior researcher at HRW, called the bill an "important step, but one that must be part of a broader effort."

Forced abductions, for instance, are unlikely to abate without a concerted police effort on the local level. Still, the move will spark its fair share of concrete progress, especially in securing the rights of Hindu women. If a husband leaves his wife, for instance, she will now have a basis to claim alimony, property and child custody.

"If women can't prove they've been married, if they can't prove they've been divorced, they're entirely dependent on who the court is going to believe," Barr told DW. "And the courts in that part of the world are much more likely to believe men than women."

Compulsory marriage documents are also vital to crack down on child marriage.

Dr. Haq agrees that the bill sends an crucial, if modest, signal. "The state is now recognizing and extending protection to a very important area of community life."