Pakistan’s Senate will soon have a young Hindu woman as its member.
Now the world will begin to discover her story and those of many young women in her community.
Krishna Kumari (of the Kohli community) was not even 10 years old yet when she was held captive by a landlord in the Umerkot district, near Tharparkar desert in the south of Sindh. By the time she was 16 and in the 9th class, she was a married woman already.
Her husband, however, supported her and she continued her education and went on to do her post-graduation in sociology from Sindh University. She is now a household name in Thar and its nearby districts where she has been fighting for human rights of the underprivileged, uneducated people, living in the remote areas of the Tharparkar desert.
Krishna is now 38, and is one of the dozen candidates nominated by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for the upcoming Senate election in March. Her nomination makes Krishna’s journey incredible at many levels.
Krishna’s brother, Veerji Kohli, was a bonded labourer too. He later helped many people escape bonded labour and was the chairman of the Berani union council of Tharparkar. In 2010, he fought for a Hindu gang-rape victim Kasturi Kohli.
Last year, Veerji Kohli was implicated in a murder case, in what many of his fellows believe were false charges levelled to remove his influence from the area of his work. Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and well-known human rights activist Jibran Nasir were among those who tweeted in his support. They said that this conviction was an act of revenge in return of Kohli’s services for the poor, whom he released from their powerful feudal lords.
But right now he is behind bars, and this illustrates Krishna’s challenges — her community’s toxic ecosystem where vulnerable women and the work of human rights defenders like her can be sabotaged.
PPP’s record in promoting women has been consistent. The first elected prime minister of any Muslim country in the world was from PPP. It appointed the first female ambassador to the United States, first speaker of National Assembly, deputy speaker of the Sindh Assembly, first foreign minister of Pakistan. During its third tenure, PPP increased the number of reserved seats for women to 70 in the National Assembly — an all-time high.
In 2016, PPP attempted to pass a law against forced conversions, particularly of teenage girls but eventually succumbed to pressure from religious organisations. The law was withdrawn and despite political assurances, will probably not return to the table anytime soon.
But PPP has also been criticised for not implementing these pro-women laws, first in the federal government when it was in power and then in the Sindh province.
Krishna’s fight against unimaginable odds is not hers alone. It represents the struggles of the young women from her community and region.
In 2017, about 900 children were reported missing to the Sindh Assembly area, and only 650 were rescued. Sindh is the hub of Vani, a cultural practice where young women are forcefully married off by their an informal (and illegal) court as a punishment for the crime committed by their male relatives. Honour killing, marriages to the Quran, forced conversions, bonded labour, sexual violence and other crimes against women are among the highest in Sindh.
And Hindu women are often the victims of these forced conversions and child marriages in Sindh.
As recently as June last year, a case of alleged forced conversion emerged in Krishna’s own district — Tharparkar. Ravita Meghwar, 16, was allegedly abducted, converted and married to one of her much older kidnappers. Ravita eventually stated she was in love, had eloped by her wishes and wanted to stay with her husband now. There is no way of telling if she was under duress or she had simply accepted this situation.
Hundreds of young women have been converted in a shrine called Sarhandi shrine in the Samaro Tehsil of Umerkot, close to where Krishna hails from. Most of them are from the scheduled castes like herself — Meghwar, Kohli, and Bheel.
This world of abuse and danger that Krishna comes from is what also make her nomination more significant.
Krishna says she wants to educate young girls in Sindh and represent their concerns. She idolises Benazir Bhutto and is all praise for Bilawal Bhutto Zardari for nominating her to the Senate in the process of bringing the voice of the Thari women on the national stage.
Although many may say that Krishna’s nomination for a Senate seat is symbolic, it is, nevertheless, a formidable symbol. She will be the second Hindu woman legislator in the country’s history.