Malala Yousafzai
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Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai with her husband Asser Malik in Britain. Photo: Twitter via Reuters

Malala Yousafzai’s marriage to Pakistani Asser Malik sparks debate among South Asian feminists

  • Shot by a Taliban gunman at age 15, the Pakistani Nobel laureate recovered, went to Oxford and continues to lobby for women’s education
  • While feminists wonder if marriage at age 24 will derail her fight against girls’ oppression, Malala says she believes she can enjoy equality in marriage
Sonia Sarkar
After news of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai’s marriage broke, Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, who lives in India, felt shocked.

Malala, 24, wed fellow Pakistani Asser Malik in her home in Birmingham on Tuesday. She moved to Britain after she was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls’ education. She later recovered and graduated from Oxford University last year.

Malala’s marriage announcement, accompanied by photos of her in a pink dress, sparked well-wishes but also concerns about how the institution would shape the future of a young South Asian woman from a traditionally conservative background who has bucked the trend by being an advocate for girls’ education.

Her non-profit Malala Fund has invested US$2 million in Afghanistan. She has also signed a deal with Apple TV+ to produce dramas and documentaries that focus on women and children, AFP reported.

Malala Yousafzai gets married in Britain

The 59-year-old author in a tweet, pointed to Malala’s age and educational achievements, saying she thought the activist would “fall in love with a handsome progressive English man at Oxford and then think of marrying not before the age of 30.”

Nasreen has been living in exile for about 27 years, after receiving death threats from radical Muslim groups due to her book on the persecution of Hindus by Muslims during the 1992 demolition of the 16th-century Babri Masjid in India, which led to communal violence.
However, in the recent past, Nasreen has also been criticised as an “opportunist” for supporting Hindu nationalists and the ruling BJP’s divisive policies such as anti-Muslim citizenship law but selectively attacking only Islamist fundamentalists on social media.

Mahnaz Rahman, resident director in the Karachi chapter of Aurat Foundation, a women’s rights organisation, called Nasreen’s criticism over Malala’s choice to get married to a Pakistani and at the age of 24 as a “violation” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that allows both men and women of full age – which is 18 years – to have the right to marry without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion.


Malala voices fear for ‘Afghan sisters’ as women and girls face uncertainty under Taliban rule

Malala voices fear for ‘Afghan sisters’ as women and girls face uncertainty under Taliban rule

But Nasreen stressed that her main concern was that Malala – an icon for many young women across the world – was sending a “wrong” message by getting hitched at the age of 24, which is “fairly young in the 21st century.”

“Women, who always looked up to Malala and fought for their rights, will now assume that there is nothing wrong in getting married in the early 20s without being financially independent. This is certainly a setback for the women’s rights’ movement in the patriarchal subcontinent,” Nasreen told This Week in Asia.

Malala should have continued her education, she added, as not many talented girls from the region were lucky enough to study at a prestigious university like Oxford.

Malala should have broken the tradition of getting married early instead of following it
Writer Taslima Nasreen

Several other social media users also asked if Malala had changed her views overnight, referring to her July interview with Britain’s Vogue magazine where she said she didn’t understand why people felt they had to marry.

“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?” she had said.

On Thursday, the activist addressed these concerns in an essay published in British Vogue. Malala said she was not against marriage but had always had reservations about its practice, including how laws regarding relationships were influenced by misogyny in many parts of the world. Growing up in the north of Pakistan, girls were taught that marriage was a substitute for an independent life, she said.

I still don’t have all the answers for the challenges facing women – but I believe that I can enjoy friendship, love and equality in marriage
Malala Yousafzai

But she had come to realise that there was another way, and the concept of marriage could be redefined with education, awareness and empowerment.

“My conversations with my friends, mentors and my now partner Asser helped me consider how I could have a relationship – a marriage – and remain true to my values of equality, fairness and integrity,” she said, describing her husband as her “best friend and companion”. Both met in the summer of 2018 when he was visiting friends at Oxford.

Lahore University of Management Sciences associate professor Nida Kirmani, who describes herself as a feminist sociologist working on gender and urban marginality in South Asia, highlighted the inequality that women face in marriage even as the tendency was to romanticise the institution.

“My criticism is less about Malala’s choice to get married and more about how society sees marriage as the kind of ‘happy ending’ to her story.

“But marriage is not a happy ending for all, it’s a patriarchal institution in the South Asian context that often limits women’s agency and choices later in life,” Kirmani said, adding she hoped this would not happen to the activist.

Malala Yousafzai and Asser Malik (right) sign papers during their nikah ceremony. Photo: Twitter via AP

Other women online though came to Malala’s defence, saying that while she was a public figure, it was important to recognise her right as a woman to make her own choices.

Rahman echoed the views of many who said that it was baseless to question if Malala would keep working after marriage, as many South Asian women married to South Asian men continued to do so.

Reema Omer, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists NGO, agreed that there should be space for criticising the institution of marriage as it often results in women losing their freedoms far more than men and there is far greater pressure on women to marry to be considered “complete”.

But, she added: “Such critique should not be pegged into an individual’s decision and fundamental freedom to get married.”

India’s women reject marriage in their millions, but society hasn’t caught up

Still, Nasreen said she remained disappointed that Malala had seemed to follow what men in a patriarchal society would want women to do – to get married early and become a child-bearing machine.

“Malala should have broken the tradition of getting married early instead of following it,” she said.

But Omer believed Malala’s choice of words such as “excited to walk together for the journey ahead” to declare her marriage on social media clearly reflected her idea of “partnership” as mentioned in the Vogue interview.

“Her tweets on her marriage give us an idea about what this marriage means to her – a new journey and partnership,” she explained.

Indeed, as Malala put it in her essay: “I still don’t have all the answers for the challenges facing women – but I believe that I can enjoy friendship, love and equality in marriage.”

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen. File photo: AFP

Academic Kirmani argued that for young people in South Asia, there is often “no other way of expressing romantic love than in the form of marriage,” so the criticism was not against Malala but of the “constraints of society” that limits the ways in which love can be conveyed legitimately.

But even as some feminists questioned Malala’s decision, members of Pakistan’s ultrareligious and conservative groups, who have often labelled the activist as an “agent” of the West, also heaped scorn on her marriage.

Omer said the criticism was expected as the hardliners have strongly opposed independent women.

“The right-wing in Pakistan has a problem with independent, successful and vocal women like Malala who never played the victim, and transformed her tragedy into her biggest strength.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Feminist tongues wag after Malala ties the knot at 24