Under a chequered marquee dazzling with chandeliers, 122 Hindu couples unable to afford their own weddings were instead married in a mass ceremony in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
In the southern megacity of Karachi, the joint nuptials on January 7 were a riot of celebration in defiance of poverty and persecution.
“I am getting married here because my parents are poor. They cannot afford the wedding expenses,” said 25-year-old bride Kalpana Devi, swathed in traditional red attire.
Her financial misfortunes – and sharing her big day with dozens of other brides – failed to dampen her spirits.
“I wish that everyone could get married here,” she said.
Weddings are a costly affair in Pakistan, where the bride’s male relatives are also often expected to pay a dowry to the groom’s family, with the expense delaying the marriage of women.
“This is a good opportunity for me as my financial state is very weak. I was not able to raise funds for the wedding,” said 25-year-old Sateesh Parmar, the brother of bride Neha Parmar.
The country is clawing its way out of a financial crisis, and rights monitors have long warned that marginalised Hindus suffer some of the worst socioeconomic discrimination in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Hindu Council, which hosted the ceremony, says there are eight million Hindus among the 240 million people living in Pakistan, according to last year’s census.
Rights groups say Hindu women are sometimes subjected to forced conversion to Islam through marriage.
Last January, United Nations experts said there was a reported rise in girls as young as 13 being “kidnapped from their families, trafficked to locations far from their homes, made to marry men sometimes twice their age, and coerced to convert to Islam”.
Shiva Kacchi, a Hindu activist, said he spoke with more than 170 families who said their daughters were forcibly converted in 2022.
Police, however, have said that the girls eloped with affluent Muslim men to evade poverty.
“Young girls have many desires, and our parents cannot afford to fulfil them,” explained Hindu activist Sundarta Rathor, also involved in arranging the mass wedding.
“The combination of economic challenges and limited education makes them susceptible to external pressures.”