‘Mum, can we pray for this girl?’ my daughter asked me as she was scrolling her phone. She had read about a victim of what must be one of the most tragic forms of persecution, the kidnapping of (often very young) Christian girls, for the purpose of forced marriage to a Muslim man. It is common in several counties where Christians face persecution. We reported earlier on Nigerian Leah Sharibu, kidnapped from her school by Boko Haram, forcibly married to one of her attackers and now teenage mum to a little boy living in a terrorist camp.
It is also common in Pakistan, where sometimes very young girls are taken, undergo a forced Islamic marriage and are subsequently kept in captivity. Recently the case of Arzoo Raja was decided in a court in Karachi. This 13-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped from her home and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. When her parents fought back in court, her husband claimed she was 18 and showed a video in which she said she had converted to Islam. Her parents claimed the video was made under duress and showed the girl’s birth certificate, which proved she was 13. It wasn’t enough and the court decided she had to stay with her husband, even though she desperately tried to run to her mother in the courtroom. Her husband grabbed her, and she couldn’t reach her mother.
From a radical Muslim perspective, marrying a Christian girl is not as strange as it would seem. Children from such a marriage are automatically counted as Muslims. It is a way to ‘make’ more Muslims and prevent Christian babies being born. However, you would think kidnapping and forced marriage are hard to pull off and could get you into trouble with the law. This is where religion, tradition and corruption form a perfect storm to trap these girls.
In many places where this happens, it is common for girls to marry very young. Their age in itself is no reason for courts to suspect foul play. Also, once they are married, sex is no longer considered rape. A girl can be picked up on her way to school, forcibly married within half an hour and then raped everyday, and it would be perfectly legal. Personal agency, bodily autonomy or consent do no longer play a role. The fact that she is kidnapped is of course illegal, but it is hard to prove. Many of these girls just disappear and authorities don’t bother to look for them. If their families find them, or they manage to escape, it is their word against that of the kidnappers. Who believes a poor, Christian minority girl over a Muslim man? Girls may even claim they ran away and married voluntarily because they are so afraid of what would happen to them if they do say they were kidnapped but are still returned to their in-laws. Unfortunately, this is a reasonable fear.
But that is not all. The shame of having been raped may prevent them from wanting to return. Who would want a ‘used’ girl and marry them after all this happened? They can never go back to the life they had. They might as well accept the one they got. Besides, these girls are often pregnant soon after marriage. Their ‘husbands’ make sure of that. If they leave, their children legally belong to their husbands and they will never see them again.
Even if they overcome all this, their Christian families may reject them. These families too are steeped in a culture where the value of women is dependent on her ‘purity’, and there is no concept of marital rape. They may see their daughters as defiled. In Nigeria there are special courses for Christian families to help them understand what their daughters have been through and to encourage them to receive them back and support them.
The parents of Arzoo Raja from Pakistan did fight to have their daughter back. In a surprise turnaround, after a nationwide outcry, the high court reversed the decision. Arzoo was taken into protective custody and her husband was arrested. He faces charges of abduction, forced conversion, and marriage to a minor girl. This is encouraging, but her fate is by no means certain yet.
I told my daughter this development as she was sitting by the fire last evening, safely with her parents and siblings, as it should be. We hope and pray that Arzoo, and the thousands of girls like her, will also once again know the warmth and safety of a family where they are loved. Please remember these young sisters in your prayers.