Malala Yousufzai appeared in British Vogue as its cover star this week, causing a stir. Her traditional look on the cover, and in the photographs accompanying the article, however, contrasted with an answer she gave to the interviewer, a journalist called Sirin Kale, about her thoughts on marriage and partnership.
The interview itself is a slice of life type piece, describing her time at university among an increasingly expanding personal life, and posing the all-too-familiar question for so many young people: what will Malala, arguably the world’s most famous university graduate, do next with her life? (She’s a fan of Among Us, a video game I have played a lot this year as well).
Naturally, Malala is considering a lot of options: should she live in the UK, move back to Pakistan, go to another country? Should she stay with her parents? Live independently? And then, there’s the question of marriage, which is on almost every 23 year old single Pakistani girl’s mind.
The interviewer asks her about relationships, if she met someone at Oxford. Here is where Malala has a bit of a meltdown. She grows embarrassed, mumbles something about hoping to find someone who respects her, and about how handsome Brad Pitt is in person. Then toward the end of the interview comes the crucial remarks: she talks about how all her friends are finding partners, but she isn’t sure if she wants to tread the same path.
She isn’t sure if she’ll ever marry herself. “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?” Her mother – like most mothers – disagrees. “My mum is like,” Malala laughs, “‘Don’t you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful.’” Meanwhile, Malala’s father occasionally receives emails from prospective suitors in Pakistan. “The boy says that he has many acres of land and many houses and would love to marry me,” she says, amused.British Vogue
Well, shit. Pakistani social media alighted upon this quote as if they were kites in the sky who had spotted a particularly tasty scrap of meat. If they were looking for something with which to bludgeon her to death, they found it: in the musings of a young woman who’s still trying to figure things out, things that confound the best and brightest of us, and the stupidest of us. “Should I get married or not, and why does there have to be marriage in the first place” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves, if we’ve got a single ounce of intelligence in our brains. (at 48, I know I ask myself the same question, and up to date neither have I found an appropriate answer nor a suitable candidate. And yet I still hope to get married some day.)
I don’t want to go into the nasty comments, the Z-list actresses who came out with statements against Malala, or the taunts of “un-Islamic” and “Zionist agent” that were showered upon Pakistan’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of its few Oxford graduates, and possibly the only girl in Pakistan to have been shot in the head and survived. They called her ugly, and that of course she wants a partnership because she’s too ugly to have a husband (in her interview, Malala said that men propose marriage in e-mails to her father all the time). The usual round of accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories — it’s a drama, she wanted a foreign passport, she was chosen by Jewish overlords to become Prime Minister of Pakistan — came out. In short, we’ve been on this rodeo before.
Also useless is to point out to the Pakistanis howling that Malala’s remarks on marriage are unIslamic that the concept of marriage in Islam, while strong and emphasized as part of Sunnah, has been fairly flexible over the centuries. A valid marriage contract written down on paper is not actually required; just a verbal agreement with witnesses will do (if we want to be very literal about it). In its early years, Islam also allowed sexual relationships with women you are not married to, but are “those whom your right hand posesses” — ie female prisoners of war, and concubines (for men only, not for women who own male slaves). A practice of temporary marriage, i.e mutah, was allowed at one point, which would then be dissolved after an agreed-upon amount of time had elapsed.
Some of these practices were established for reasons of practicality, and some of them have been abused rather than treated as the exceptions or temporary situations meant to give rights to children born out of the traditional marriage scenario. Some of these practices have been abolished, or outlawed in the modern nations where Islam is practiced. Many of these practices continue in secret. The evolution of a written marriage contract is a modern invention made in order to safeguard certain legal rights of the participants, as well as to be able to register marriages in records and databases. But there was once a time when nothing more was required for a binding partnership than two people saying in front of two witnesses that they wanted to be together as spouses.
Marriage is in short not the solid brick house that Pakistanis want to build and entrap two people in forever, regardless of their feelings, their needs, wants and desires. It is exactly what Malala expresses a little clumsily in her interview: a partnership with a door that either partner can open to leave any time she or he wants, with good reason. The Quran is clear that spouses are meant to be a comfort to one another, to have affection for one another, and to guard each others’ privacy and secrets. But it forces no one to marry against their will. If Malala is not ready to marry, and if she is never ready to marry, then she is within her rights not to do so.
Most important, she’s a 23 year old who is still trying to figure out things in life. Note that she says, “I still don’t understand why people have to be married.” Obviously, she understands that in Islam, you have to be married if you want to have sexual intercourse in a halal way. Here is a girl who still wears a dupatta on her head, even though she’s been all around the world and met world leaders and won the Nobel Prize. But she’s talking about a bigger idea: that marriage is an institution with plenty of baggage, and the technicalities and legalities can sometimes obscure what is important about the tenderness and understanding and affection that develops between humans.
I expect to hear in the fullness of time that Malala is getting married, once she’s worked some of these questions out in her head and met a man who respects her but also gives her the space she needs to be her own person and do what she came here to Earth to accomplish. Maybe she made a mistake not keeping these musings to herself, maybe she didn’t realize what it would sound like to her enemies and detractors. But to many of us, she’s voicing what we all think in our heads. She’s brave enough to say it out loud — but then bravery is what Malala has always been known for.
Addendum: It does bear asking why Malala evokes such vitriol from some of her compatriots (not all – there is a sizeable portion of Pakistanis who are very proud of her, and APS attack victim Waleed Ziad has said she is a role model for Pakistanis like him).
Basically, what Malala does is trigger Pakistanis because we feel very insecure about our standing in the world. This includes her supporters as well as her detractors. Those of us who support her want to believe in the fairytale because Pakistan has so few of them, and we’re desperate to have something good of our country out in the world. We vicariously feel respect because Malala is respected, and we get triggered when we see people hating on her as violently as they do.
Those who hate her feel she is actively working to expose our weaknesses to our enemies, but this is projection of their own fears and insecurities about Pakistan’s ability to survive its many challenges and threats. And when we feel bad about ourselves we look around for someone to blame it on, which happens to be Malala because she’s clearly visible and so prominent. We want to cut her down because we think she’s gotten too big and gone too far (in Australia, this is called Tall Poppy Syndrome).
So Malala is not just a litmus test to weed out jerks, as someone said so cleverly on Twitter the other day, but a psychological sore point through which Pakistanis express their frustrations about how we are perceived in the world and why we haven’t progressed further despite so many people trying so hard to achieve peace, prosperity and a good future for their children.