When I first came across Malala Yousafzai’s wedding photos, I found myself immediately thinking, “She’s too young for this.”
The 24-year-old Pakistan-born activist looked resplendent, as most brides do, in a lovely blush-pink silk wedding attire, as she posed with her husband Asser Malik in photos she posted on Twitter last week. Malala, who at 17 became the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was married in England on November 9, more than nine years after she was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager.
In India, where I live, the average age that most women get married is in their teens, which is very similar to Pakistan, where the average age of marriage is around 18. In both countries, girls are often married off without their consent. Many millennial Indian women have been able to break out of this mould, thanks to education, even though our collective sense of empowerment is still riddled with anxieties.
For a woman in South Asia, marriage is usually anything but the nauseatingly romanticised version you see on the screen or read about in romance novels. Despite our tumultuous borders, what binds us South Asian women together is that we live in a patriarchal system, where our value, self-worth, relationships and positions are pre-ordained for us by a rigid and regressive societal order. Most marriages are also built this way.
If you’re a journalist like me, you’ll be equal parts sickened and numbed at the amount of violence meted upon women everyday, for anything ranging from dowry, honour and religion to reproductive rights, migration, labour and caste. Along with the daily onslaught of anecdotal evidence is the ever-depressing data in India.
One National Family Health Survey study conducted from 2015 to 2016 found that 29.5 percent of surveyed women experienced physical violence when they were as young as the age of 15. The latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau found that 14 cases of “cruelty by husband” are registered every hour. Marginalised women, especially those who fall within the rigid caste system, or those belonging to the queer community and indigenous societies, have the most to lose of us all.
As someone who routinely reports on gender-based violence across South Asia, especially the ones that take place within state-sanctioned relationships, I have grown rather disillusioned with the institution of marriage, which is further fuelled by its glorification in popular culture.
My opinion is also shaped by the women in my own personal life, who spent decades in marriage because “divorce is not good for women,” “what will become of my children,” or “where would I have gone.” My feminism comes from a space where I have been relentlessly hassled by family, relatives and even some friends to get married before all the seemingly great, eligible men of the world are taken or, worse, my age shows in my wedding photos. I remember my mother shuddering when she spotted my first grey hair and the worry-creases on my forehead in my mid-20s – an issue she found more appalling than, I don’t know – world hunger or poverty?
Then there are the horrors my ageing eggs instil in my family’s mind. Their biggest fear is that they will not get to see a new generation in their terrible diabetes-riddled gene pool. I come from a small town in north India, and here, at least for the people I know, a woman’s best achievement is secondary to her marital status, even if the marriage sucks balls. One 2020 data found that there are more single women in India today, including widows, divorcees, the never-married and the abandoned than ever before. But the fact that there are more of us doesn’t necessarily mean we’re allowed to exist in peace.
I’d like to clarify that I’m not anti-marriage. I’m just against the undue value attached to it and the harassment that is enabled in the name of “familial concern.”
Indian women are not alone. In China, single women over the age of 27 are called “leftover women”, whereas in Indonesia, they are considered to be “in trouble.” In South Korea, where abortion is severely restricted, single women with children are stigmatised and shamed.
My point of view is not the sentiment and experience of all women growing up in this region. But perhaps there’s no exaggeration in saying that many of us are Malalas of our own lives, in a way, taking or at least dodging a metaphorical bullet or two to retain our agency as women and individuals in this rigged system.
So, I did a little dance when I read Malala’s June interview in British Vogue, in which she famously said, “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?” This simple statement in a fashion magazine, from a young woman who hails from a region that puts the most premium on an adult woman’s marital status, made a world of difference – despite the vicious hate she got from her own conservative compatriots.
Last week, though, soon after her wedding photos went viral, Malala came out with a personal essay, once again in Vogue, seemingly to justify her previous statement to those who wondered why she got married when she only just said that getting married is no big deal.
“Many girls I grew up with were married even before they had the opportunity to decide on a career for themselves. One friend had a child when she was just 14-years-old,” wrote Malala, talking about the realities of marriage for young girls and women. “Knowing the dark reality many of my sisters face, I found it hard to think of the concept of marriage. I said what I had so often said before – that maybe it was possible that marriage was not for me.”
“But what if there was another way?” Malala added, as she wrote about meeting her husband, albeit in a more privileged environment – Oxford, U.K. – than most women in South Asia have. They became best friends, she said, and had common values. “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,” she wrote.
Many South Asian women are finding ways to push back against the patriarchy, either because of their privilege or because they’re pushed to the limit. But after reading Malala’s statement, I softened my stance a bit – and not because a lot of us think her husband is kind of hot.
Personally, I’m also surrounded by great marriage stories, of women who enjoy equal status and power in their marriages. Whether feminism can coexist with marriage is hotly debated, even in other parts of the world, because of how skewed a majority of heterosexual relationships usually are.
But I believe it’s also important to understand that a lot of unequal relationships are an offshoot of the larger system that enables these inequalities. Yes, the South Asian mindset is still deeply patriarchal and misogynistic, but this attitude finds legitimacy through the state, our legal rights – for instance, to own or inherit property – and even passages of justice. These pillars of our societies are made by and of men, and hence mostly favour men. In India, you see this in the way senior judges continue to save abusive men and shame women who undergo abuse.
So, I now find myself thinking, perhaps there is more merit in excavating the inequities in the institution rather than bulldozing the institution of marriage altogether. Perhaps, it’s better to fight for equal status in terms of inheritance, property, finances and reproductive rights in a relationship rather than sitting in a huff and calling all marriages crap. As society evolves, I believe that what leads to a bit of self-actualisation is the ability to understand a variety of viewpoints and make your own choices, even if these choices change over time.
I still do think marriage is a sexist institution, and I haven’t made up my mind on whether I want it for myself at all. But I also voluntarily sign on to other sexist behaviours everyday, from wearing make-up to high heels. With few feminist South Asian marriages to look up to, Malala’s decision made me think for the first time that it’s okay to do what brings you pleasure rather than live fully in line with strict feminist ideals.
In the June British Vogue interview, Malala had told the journalist that her biggest fear is of failing the voiceless girls who rely on her. And I wondered to myself whether it’s fair to put the world’s expectations – even my disenchanted ones – on her strong shoulders. Malala is too young for marriage, I had initially thought. But she was also too young to fight an oppressive system and get shot at the age of 17 by a grown-ass man with a gun.
In her Vogue essay from last week, Malala said, “Culture is made by people – and people can change it too.” As all South Asian women collectively keep an eye on Malik (we’re watching you, brother-in-law), we – especially those like me with terrible views on marriage – must acknowledge that our feminism is subject to change, like all good things. Even if that feminism means embracing old traditions, but making it better.
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