Illustration by Jam Moreno

That's What She Said: Marriage is a Patriarchal Institution. But Everyone Gets to Fight it On Their Own Terms.

Malala’s decision to marry brought forth a flurry of hot takes: celebration, joy, frustration and disappointment. But it is unfair to place the burden of fighting the oppressive institution of marriage on a single individual.

Nov 13, 2021

When I saw Malala’s tweet about her marriage this past week, I laughed out loud. My friends, who were around me at the time, had explosive reactions too: “What? Why? How?”, we wondered.
She just graduated from Oxford this year, someone exclaimed. No, it was last year, someone else corrected. I texted my mom with the same frenzy: Did you know she got married? I expressed my disbelief and I’m sure there was a text along the lines of, “Of course this happened the same year she expressed disdain in Vogue about marriage as an institution.” My mom proceeded to laugh at my disbelief, expressing surprise at my reaction and quoted lyrics from a quintessential song about ishq (love) to me.
I’ve had time to think since that day and to absorb the many hot takes I’ve seen on Twitter about her marriage. Malala is, sadly and unfortunately, often an extremely polarising figure in Pakistan: You either love her or you hate her for all that she represents. There will be trolls on any and all mainstream posts relating to Malala and there will be those who defend her and die on that hill too. But when it came to discourse about her marriage announcement, I found validation: there were many others, who, like me, could not believe she got married so fast. There was quite a lot of celebration too, from all those who wished her well — which were few to begin with — but the positivity was present nonetheless.
And then I came to those who channeled this disbelief into a criticism of Malala herself and her activism: as if she was less of an activist for choosing to marry at all, for choosing to marry when she did and even for choosing to marry whom she did. That put me in a moment of reflection and discomfort. Was I thinking along the same lines as the internet trolls and articulating her decision to marry as something problematic? I knew I didn’t want to be. But then, what was it?
In June this year, British Vogue had published a profile on Malala, where she expressed her views on marriage: “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?” she said, expressing a view that I and many others in Pakistan resonated with.
Here I found a trailblazing global icon from Pakistan, who was ultimately a girl figuring out what she wants her life to look like and her views on marriage sounded somewhat the same as mine. Those few lines boldly resisted centuries of patriarchal oppression, violence and coercion and provided much needed validation and space: someone among us articulated them and put this belief out there.
Marriage — in its most toxic forms — is deeply rooted and normalized in Pakistan's culture. It’s internalized and accepted by women, no matter how empowered, as an eventual condition in their life they must give in to. Dissent against it or even any move to define it on your own terms is discouraged, sometimes violently, even in the most progressive of quarters. Marriage is one’s main goal and achievement. And this was evident as many reactions from Pakistan to Malala’s marriage celebrated her “happy ending” and a major milestone in her life.
Youngest Nobel laureate, global icon for girls’ right to education and one of Pakistan’s most prolific and globally renowned human rights activists: you’d think these were achievements enough. However, her marriage and the reaction to it, from even the most progressive feminist spaces, surpassed these.
There is little room to resist marriage as a girl in Pakistan. Malala’s stance was leverage, perhaps, to be used at a time where one would find themselves in a position to give in to the same expectations. It was also motivation to continue to resist.
It makes sense, then, that feelings of disappointment, exasperation and surprise were so prevalent in reactions to Malala’s announcement of her marriage, half a year after she had expressed disdain toward it. It wasn’t about going back on her words. Rather, it felt like the last stronghold of young women who disregard marriage in all its forms had fallen. It was like Malala herself had given into patriarchy and into the institution of marriage. And what’s worse was that everyone readily celebrated this union.
But just a few days after, Malala wrote a personal essay for British Vogue, outlining her decision to get married in spite of her beliefs surrounding the institution and finding empowerment in doing so. “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 ... I believe that I can enjoy friendship, love and equality in marriage,” she wrote.
Malala’s choice is not anti-feminist or backward in any sense. Rather, the same beliefs that defined her defense against not getting married seem to define her decision to take it upon herself to reconstitute her marriage on her own terms. If Malala believes she is empowered enough to redefine the institution on her own terms for her own self and inspire others to do the same, then this is the feat that must be celebrated rather than the mere fact of her getting married.
“It is not a win for the patriarchy in any way,” is what I chose to tell myself a few days ago. Instead, it is a young girl who feels empowered enough to strive and to resist a structure that has been in place since time immemorial, while acknowledging all the flaws, pain and disempowerment that marriage leads to for many others who are less privileged than she is. The moral of the story should not be that one will eventually be made to give in to the institution of marriage, but that there will be a time when one feels empowered enough to believe that they can redefine it on their own terms.
I feel naïve saying this, knowing that there are girls around me in Pakistan who will be coerced or “gently nudged” into getting married as soon as they finish secondary education, or sometimes earlier. There will be overwhelming, even suffocating, expectations from nearly everyone around them to do so after they graduate with a degree. I know that the argument of respecting choice does not stand for most young women in Pakistan: does the notion of choice even stand when you are convinced that marriage is the only option for you to lead a “respectable” life? I also know that it is naïve to ask that girls be given enough agency and empowerment in their life to feel that they understand what is wrong with marriage, so they in turn strive to fix it for themselves if they still want to associate with it. It is naïve, but it is also hopeful.
It is okay for Malala’s choice to feel frustrating or disappointing for young women in Pakistan. But no one individual should be expected to carry the burden of challenging institutionalized and systemic oppression against women always. In fact, no one really can and this is not something that should be held against her and her activism. But if there is one girl, empowered and privileged as she now is, who feels that the agency she has is enough to tackle that institution from within, then it is time to celebrate that agency and work towards helping others feel the same way.
Huma Umar is Managing Editor. Email her at
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