“I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?”
Blasphemous, mannerless, an insult to our culture – vehement critics of Malala took to Twitter to espouse these rhetorics about Malala shortly after her interview with British Vogue, to the extent that the hashtag #ShameOnMalala was trending nationally in Pakistan. Moreover, religious figures in Pakistan began preaching the incompatibility of religion and her words. However, despite the wave of criticism she received in Pakistan, many women in Pakistan and the diaspora have found her words regarding partnership relatable despite cultural norms.
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani Nobel Laureate who received her accolade for her fight to protect young women and children’s right to education from suppression. Since then, and despite her achievements, she’s been the subject of scorn from the Pakistani media. With false claims about her shooting being staged and that she’s a Western Agent, it’s no surprise that in a recent interview with British Vogue about her life and experiences, she’s seen by the Pakistani media as ‘shameless.’
The purpose of Malala’s statement is not to sinisterly degrade the institution of marriage, but rather a question of the legal aspects of marriage – and the signing of the marriage papers. When Islam was introduced to the world in the 7th century, the religion in its purest form was radical and revolutionary for its day and age. Women couldn’t get married unless they gave explicit consent, and without coercion, they could dictate the contract of their own marriage, allowing any or all amendments. Furthermore, women had the full right to their own property, which their husbands had no right to own. It is not the same case vice versa, meaning women were entitled to their husband’s property. And finally, an aspect that is not accepted in modern culture but was clearly written: there is no stigma of divorce if the husband is emotionally, financially, physically, or otherwise neglectful and unwilling to perform his duties. Going from having little to no rights in a repressive and backward era to being entitled to control over your own life seems like the bare minimum by today’s standards, but was considered empowering back then.
These rules haven’t changed over the past fourteen centuries, but our culture has, and our world is more complex. Malala talks about how she’s “never going to get married, never going to have kids – just going to do work.” Her comment highlights the presence of patriarchy, and how the world is built for a man and his nuclear family. Still, for women trying to make it in the world, it’s often either marriage and family or your education and work. With the flexibility that women have today in choosing their career, pursuing higher education, and working for a cause that means something to them, it makes sense that marriage and its responsibilities, especially associated with the Pakistani culture, may present themselves as a burden. But the idea of love never is; it’s something that women and Malala herself hope to find “someone who understands me, respects me, and loves me and takes care of me.” The choice of saying no to marriage offers equality in a way, flexibility to determine your future, and emphasizes the purity of love.
The word ‘partnership,’ which Malala argues for as opposed to signing legal papers, tells a story about two people choosing to be with each other every day without the all-consuming concept of marriage binding you to eternal commitment.
The commitment itself comes not just as a cultural and emotional price, but as a legal one. In the United States, marriage for differently-abled or disabled people to non-disabled people may result in loss of supplementary social income. The plight of disabled people is often not considered in a world that’s built for the non-disabled. The loss of individuality due to marriage is hard to untangle without lengthy court proceedings and messy divorces. What was initially seen as protection for women and couples, in general, doesn’t protect you from an undeniable truth: that people change.
And it’s something Malala can see in herself “I didn’t realize that you’re not the same person all the time. You change as well, and you’re growing.” On 9th November 2021, Malala defined what partnership means to her in a Nikah ceremony with her life partner, Asser Malik. Despite fulfilling what appears to be traditional expectations, getting married and choosing life partners was never about rebelling against institutions or culture, but rather having the freedom to choose it on one’s accords. As she mentions herself, she understands that people will grow and change, but if there’s one that should be encouraged throughout culture, religion, and expectations, it’s happiness.
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