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Will the Hindu Marriage Bill 2015 really make life easier for Hindu couples?

Will the Hindu Marriage Bill 2015 really make life easier for Hindu couples?

KOTRI: Raheel and Gulzadi have been married two and a half years. They live in Kotri with their one-year-old, but are unable to meet their extended families regularly. The couple avoids travelling far together because their marital status is not legally recognised.

"We face embarrassment when asked to prove our relationship at checkpoints,” Raheel says. Security officials posted along the highway stop the couple and request identification and papers proving their marital status.

They have nothing to prove their marriage. "Not even with a CNIC," says Raheel, referring to the Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). “According to our CNICs, my wife and I are both single," he adds.




Although they both have identity cards, their last names are not the same. Despite repeated visits to NADRA, officials have told the couple that Guldazi will retain her father’s name until a legal document proves otherwise. It has been over two years but the status on their documents is still the same.

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Without a law, Hindus say women in their community are easy targets of rape and forced marriage, and face problems in proving the legitimacy of their relationships before the law. Widows are particularly disadvantaged in accessing their husband’s savings and in matters of inheritance.

Even in daily affairs, moving forward with any other activity which involves documentation — from opening a bank account to applying for a visa — becomes next to impossible for a married Hindu woman.

Human Rights activist Pushpa Kumari, for example, might be married and her children grown up, but from a legal point of view, she is still single.

“An embassy asked me for proof of marriage when I needed to travel abroad,” Kumari remembers. Her husband had to go to Diplo to try and get a marriage certificate issued by the Secretary Office of Union Council Diplo.

The secretary did not issue a marriage certificate? which is still an informal arrangement and not a legal document? until Kumari’s husband brought at least two witnesses who had attended their wedding and submitted their testimony.

Despite living in the country for the past 68 years, Pakistan’s Hindu community has no mechanism to legalise their marriages. That problem, however, could soon be resolved if the Federal Assembly passes the proposed Hindu Marriage Bill 2015 which was unaninmously accepted by the Sindh Assembly last week.

After repeated delays in passing the Marriage Bill, the provincial assembly accepted it with two amendments: the bill fixes the minimum age of marriage at 18, and extends the law over the whole country instead of just the federal capital, as initially planned.

Before the bill is implemented, several aspects of the law will need to be properly formulated. One clause that has been the source of controversy states that the marriage will be nullified if any of the partners converts to Islam. The clause was inserted by the Council of Islamic Ideology and has caused an outcry amidst legislators and activists who fear it could be abused by forcing women to convert.

The lack of legal documentation of personal status means women in particular are far more vulnerable. According to Seema Meshwari of Human Rights Commission Pakistan, it becomes difficult to legally force a husband to provide subsistence to the family, if he refuses to recognize it in the event of a dispute or separation.

In 2001, Guddi Mai, a mother of three children, filed a civil suit against her husband, demanding that he provide maintenance. When her husband appeared in court, he refused to acknowledge Mai and their three children. After undergoing humiliation, Mai managed to prove her claims through other means—but she was one of the luckier ones.

If a Hindu woman’s husband passes away, widows and minors face difficulty in proving their relationship to the diseased, making the transfer or succession of property an extremely complicated process.

Gulzadi says she is also concerned about her future. “If my husband ever leaves me, I cannot claim for maintenance from him,” she says. Gulzadi and her children cannot even benefit from inheritance, since they have no legal document or mechanism to make a claim. “Who would support me and my child?”

Ross Mahtani, a minority rights activist, welcomes the Sindh government’s unanimous adoption of the Hindu Marriage Bill 2015 as a positive step, but he has his reservations. “It pertains solely to the registration of marriages,” he explains.

Still, Mahtani says it is not enough. “It is only a registration bill which will allow the marriages of Hindu couples to be registered,” Mahtani says. But other things are not included or even mentioned in the draft: inheritance laws, adoption, divorce, maintenance.

Meanwhile, there is a more comprehensive bill on the table: the Hindu Marriage Bill 2014, a private member bill which was passed by the National Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights.

“The legislation will institutionalise marriage and marriage-related legal rights thereof, this act is applicable to every person who is Hindu by his or her religion in any of its forms," Ramesh Lal of PPP, one of the two men who moved the private bill, told Dawn earlier.

If marriage is in limbo, so is divorce. There is no law in place governing the process of separation or divorce between Hindu couples, and nothing preventing or outlining the process of remarriage.

Three years ago, Meena Meghwar's husband verbally divorced her and told her to leave their home six months after marrying her. Two years later, Meena remarried in her hometown of Umerkot in Thar, but soon, her former husband filed a petition in court saying her second marriage was illegal because he had never divorced her.

Tired of fruitless court visits, Meena’s second husband forcibly divorced her. She returned to her father’s home, where she now lives.

According to Seema Meshwari, there is a glaringly loophole among these arrangements and decisions. “If a married woman is abducted and forcibly remarried, then there is no proof of the first marriage,” Meshwari says. Thus, marriages can be annulled and re-invoked simply on the basis of situation, mood and circumstance.

Efforts to institutionalise Hindu marriages began in 1976, but fell through when there was no consensus on details like divorce, says Jai Prakash Moorani, the editor of Daily Ibrat Hyderabad.

The demand for legislation was highlighted again in July 2009 when former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry took suo motu notice of NADRA’s rejection of Perrmessary Mai’s request for a marriage certificate. NADRA took no action despite Chaudhry’s order until 2012, when they finally amended their laws to provide a temporary mechanism for a marriage certificate.

After the 18th Amendment, the issues of religious minorities and their family matters became provincial subjects but the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies passed resolutions allowing the federation to legislate Hindu marriage law.

According to Jai Prakash Moorani, a uniform Hindu marriage law at the federal level is needed so interprovincial marriages are easier. Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhunkhwa were the first to pass bills similar to Sindh regulating Hindu marriages. Now that Sindh has been successful, reportedly, the Punjab Assembly is likely to follow soon.

Moorani said that ideally, all provinces should surrender their power through a resolution to the federal assembly for legistating the Hindu Marriage Bill under Article 144 of the constitution, so that one law prevails in the entire country. "If there are different laws in different provinces, it will create confusion and problems for interprovincial marriages."

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