Christian Women Face Unknown World In Pakistan

May 18, 2009

Author: Lys Anzia

Source: Women News Network

During the recent days of battle in the northwest region of the Swat Valley, minority groups are leaving as quickly as possible. Although the majority of religious minorities in the Swat Valley are ethnic Pushtuns, with Sunni religious beliefs, Christian minority women and their families are also part of the fleeing force of refugees.

As violence continues between 4,000 Taliban splinter groups and Islamabad soldiers in the conflict of war, Christian minority refugees, global rescue agencies and Pakistan’s own army leaders nervously wait to see who, in the end, will end up controlling the region. Some Christian women and their families will be forced to stay behind as they have been unable to leave due to the expense of travel. Those who join the 100 degree Fahrenheit refugee camps also face problems with the sharing in handouts of food, an activity that is usually segregated among Sikhs, Hindus and Christians.

“Christian, Hindu and Sikh families have been forced to flee because the Taliban imposed on them Jizia, a tax levied on non-Muslims living under Islamic rule,” said Catholic Archbishop, Lawrence John Saldanha, in a letter released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “Now minority communities in the province are forced to endure unemployment, intimidation and migration,” continued the Archbishop’s message.

90% of Pakistani Christians live in Punjab with 50% living in rural villages. “Less than 2% of Pakistanis are Christians,” says a 2008 CNS – Catholic News Service report, although this number has been more recently set by United Nations agencies at a larger 4%. Half of Pakistan’s Christian minority population is Catholic, the other half Protestant.

Pakistan’s religious minorities

Minority religions and sectarian groups in Pakistan come from a vast collection of religious diversity which includes Christians, Buddhists, Ahmadis, Zikris, Hindus, Kalasha, Parsis, Sikhs and Shia Muslim sects, including Ismailis and Bohras. Ethnic regional groups come from 5 different communities, including the Baloch, Huhajir, Punjabis, Pushtuns and Sindhis.

Although 25% of religious minority women are not considered disadvantaged, Christian minority women who live on the bottom of society face many untold limitations. A policy of “living invisibly” with family members is often the only answer for protection for many minority Christian families who suffer under the great specter of poverty in Pakistan.

The most recent Pakistan 1998 census shows minority totals in the country to number somewhere between 11 to 13 million. Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus claim to have a population of 4 million each.

Marginalization of Christian minority women

Most of the families of Christian minority women in Punjab came, at the turn of the 20th century, from families that were originally from India. They came from dalit Hindu families who moved to what would later become the Pakistan region in 1947. Their legacy of isolation and separation from Indian society is ongoing. As dalits they were part of the lowest “untouchable” caste in India. This has been a nemesis that has followed them, even after they converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Basic women’s rights and human rights are often out of reach for these women who daily experience conditions of extreme poverty.

Dalit Christian women who have been severely marginalized often suffer from a shortage of even the simplest basic needs. Lack of health care is common. Slum conditions can also be found where families are forced to live on the streets or to live together in crowded poorly constructed shelters, amid garbage, toxic chemicals and refuse. Their structures often have no electricity, heat or clean water.

Because of these conditions, many dalit Christian women fall into lifetime careers as sewer cleaners, domestic servants or brick kiln workers. Payments for these positions are painfully low, or at times non-existent. Some employers give payment loans ahead to trap minority women, preventing them from ever paying the loans back as they continue to work for free on wheels of never ending debt bondage.

University educated Christian minority women, on the other hand, have quite an opposite experience. Because they are usually supported by family or a husband with money they fare much better among Pakistani society. These women usually have comfortable standards of living, a home their family owns and personal time for leisure activities. They also have much greater freedom with contacts and life opportunities.

The act of clustering poor dalit Christian minority women and families on church owned land or “colonies” has contributed to a much deeper degree of cultural segregation. While isolation and clustering is meant to provide safety, at times it has created more danger for families, as Islamic extremist groups identify Christian community locations to specifically plan their attacks.

A survey of Christian minority women in society

When a 2006 University of Birmingham, UK study was conducted among a wide span of Christian minority women in Pakistan, all women did mention that they had experienced what they called Muslim “name calling.” One derogatory name which is used commonly in Pakistan is “sweeper” which refers to the “worst of all” – a dalit Christian.

Both educated and uneducated Christian women admitted that they had been asked numerous times by others if they would convert to Islam. Some also experienced reverse discrimination when they befriended someone Muslim, as some of their Christian friends criticized them. One student said that her marks at school were lowered when her teacher realized she was Christian, but she also added her experience was, “not that difficult.”

Those who come from much greater disadvantaged backgrounds, on the other hand, shared much more serious grievances.