Pakistani Christian girl freed from forced marriage to Muslim abductor

Reeha Saleem
Reeha Saleem | ADF International

In a significant legal victory, a Family Court in Pakistan has annulled the forced marriage of Reeha Saleem, a Christian girl abducted in 2019 on her way home from school. The court ruled that the marriage to her Muslim neighbor, under which she was coerced into converting to Islam, was not valid.

Reeha, who was a 17-year-old student at the time of her abduction, testified that her signature on the marriage certificate was obtained through coercion, says legal advocacy group ADF International, which represented her in court through its local allies.

The court found that she did not marry her abductor, Muhammad Abbas, willfully. Abbas, who repeatedly failed to appear in court despite several notices, was judged in absentia during ex-parte proceedings.

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Reeha’s ordeal began when she was forcibly taken by Abbas and pressured into a marriage and religious conversion that she never consented to. During the court proceedings, she reaffirmed her Christian faith and denied having willingly converted to Islam.

Parveen Saleem, Reeha’s mother, expressed profound relief at the court’s decision. “We’ve faced indescribable difficulties during this time, including being forced to go into hiding to escape from Reeha’s abductor who kept threatening the family to return ‘his wife’. We also suffered from an abrupt end to Reeha’s education,” she said.

With the annulment, Parveen hopes her daughter can resume her studies and return to a normal life, thanking ADF International’s allied lawyer, Sumera Shafique, for their support in securing justice.

Tehmina Arora, ADF International’s director of Advocacy in Asia, said, “No girl should suffer the horrors of abduction and forced marriage, further being forced to give up their faith.” Arora called for systemic change, advocating for the Pakistani government to set the minimum marriage age to 18, to prevent such forced marriages and conversions.

Forced marriages are validated by Sharia law in Pakistan. The law permits marriage at puberty, often setting the marriageable age lower than the country’s official limits of 16 to 18 years old.

Arora added: “These forced conversions and marriages are a tremendous violation of the basic human rights of these young women, who often are fearful for their lives and those of their families, preventing them from denouncing their captors. In Pakistan, where these abuses are prevalent, the government has an opportunity to make a difference by implementing a uniform age for marriage and other safeguards in the law.” 

A 2014 report by a local group, The Movement for Solidarity and Peace Pakistan, estimated that hundreds of women and girls from Pakistan’s Hindu and Christian communities were abducted, forcibly married and converted to Islam every year.

The U.S.-based International Christian Concern has reported that religion is often injected into cases of sexual assault to place religious minority victims at a disadvantage. Perpetrators play upon religious biases to cover up and justify their crimes by introducing an element of religion.

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