Is marriage patriarchal? More importantly, does marriage signal a tacit support of a patriarchal institution? Some interesting questions were raised on Twitter on the occasion of Malala Yusefzai’s wedding. I address them in this essay through the lens of an individual living in a patriarchal system.
When Nobel Laurate Malala Yusefzai announced her marriage on social media, it took Pakistan by storm. In some circles women rejoiced. Seeing anything online that makes this young woman happy brings joy to those who look up to her and admire her for her courage and activism. Her dress was exclaimed over (“This pink suits her so much!”), her husband’s social media accounts and personal details were quickly unearthed and scrutinized (“Hmm… he went to Aitchison and LUMS”), and jokes circulated all over about how all the Pakistani aunties would be keeping an eye on this “boy” and how he treats Malala.
There was a sub-section of feminist Twitter that expressed disappointment in her decision, with the tweets ranging from the academic to the absurd. Then there is a third section of Pakistan that hates Malala with the force of a thousand burning suns. Conspiracy theories abound about her being an agent of the “West” who is choosing to show a horrible image of Pakistan to the world. All thanks to a Vogue interview Malala had given back in July, this marriage appeared to bring together some people on the feminist left with the more conservative crowd.
In this interview Malala conversed easily about her headscarf and wore it for her photoshoots. She spoke about how she lives with her parents and doesn’t drink alcohol. She discussed the hospitality embedded in Pashtun culture with her interviewer. She talked about being starstruck when she met Brad Pitt and made the interviewer feel like she was “torturing a kitten” when pressed about her love life. But all this was ignored to focus on the statement she made about marriage:
“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?’”
This statement was enough to get Malala trending on twitter in Pakistan. People who had always disliked her felt validated in their feelings and pointed to this statement as her trying to promote “Western values”. She was accused of not being a good Muslim, not understanding Islam, and promoting vulgarity—and so followed the usual expletives and death and rape threats that come with such discourse. It caused such an outcry that her statement was raised as a point of order in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, with lawmakers condemning her and asking her father for clarification.
This statement was trotted out again this week, as Malala had the audacity to change her mind in public and get married. Whatsapp messages circulated, poking fun at her statement.
And the tweets followed too.
The main outcry from many feminists appear to be that they had expected Malala to be a beacon for young girls. They wanted her to break patriarchal traditions and norms and not “to get married early and become a child-bearing machine”. Her marriage appeared to be a betrayal of some covenant between her and South-Asian feminists, where every aspect of her personal life was meant to be a feminist decision, guiding the way for young girls.
This approach is inherently an un-feminist one. Judging the decision of one woman through the lens of academic or personal opinions and finding them wanting is not taking into account the chains of patriarchy that twist through every aspect of our lives. Patriarchy is not a single phenomenon; it is an entire system. It permeates every aspect of modern life, from healthcare to entertainment, to the legal system, education and beyond (1). Add race to this mix, and it’s a whole new can of intersectional worms. To change a system, you need more than an individual taking action. We have already made this mistake in demanding seats at tables of power for marginalized people. This demand overlooked the table itself being corrupt and that any person sitting there would be part of the corruption too.
Take the example of Miki Agrawal. Acclaimed as a “She-EO”, she was one of the shining examples of women making it in a man’s world. But once she had made it, what did she do? Indulged in the same practices that countless man had before her. She did not change the system—and it’s debatable whether the system changed her or whether it only allows people who play within its bounds and norms to progress. When people talk about having female heads of state to end all wars, I laugh. Clearly, they believe that it is individual decision-making on the part of men that has led the world to be how it is, not the systems of capitalism and imperialism that infiltrate every level of governance. These are the same arguments that corporations and countries are using in order to gaslight us into thinking that if I, as a consumer, did not buy all the straws that I did, maybe the world would not be on the verge of a climate apocalypse. In order to have us ignore the ways that rapacious greed on the part of the Global North has driven us to this point, we are all involved in an individual blame game.
The same, I believe, is what is being done to Malala with this discourse.
Using her announcement to launch into feminist discussions about weddings and marriages, is to pretend that her decision bought it back en vogue, as though multiple girls are looking at Malala’s photos, thinking to themselves: “Well, I was never going to get married but looking at her I’m inspired to give it a go!” We can discuss why marriage is so entrenched in so many societies and how, legally, it can sometimes be the only option for couple to be together, without bringing Malala’s marriage into the mix and projecting our own assumptions of her feelings about it.
By itself, there is no denying that marriage is a patriarchal practice. The origins of marriage date back to it being a means of transferring property – which could be defined to mean land, livestock, or women. Love was a fool’s consideration, if it even was one. Men benefited from free labor, and the production of heirs. Women counted upon the economic security that came with marriage as, historically, they were not allowed to work outside of the home. Society wielded its most important tools, shame and judgement, to promote this contractual undertaking. To date, people opting out of marriage are often still looked at askance. Considered one of the greatest rights people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum can win for themselves is the right to marry; it is often news that is celebrated with great aplomb, with “Love is Love” quoted ad nauseum. Their right to marry is often conflated with their right to exist and find happiness. And it’s not an incorrect assumption. As times have changed, love and companionship have become an important aspect for this undertaking. People are less willing to stay in unhappy marriages where they may be financially secure but emotionally deprived. But this shift has not necessarily changed the inherent patriarchy still present in the institution.
The perpetuation of gender roles is an easy criticism: the “blushing” bride, given away by her father to another man. The entire rom-com industry where women simply want to be married and have to convince a man to have them. The term “bridezilla”. Women being expected to change their names in a vast majority of cultures. Women shouldering the lion’s share of the household work, irrespective of whether they are homemakers or are employed at a job. In fact, married women may even do more housework than single mothers – in the case of heterosexual marriage.
Why then, should one even consider getting married? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also found in patriarchal systems of power.
Let’s focus on the UK, where Malala currently resides. If you are in a relationship with someone, you can either get married or register as a civil partnership. Currently there is not a lot of difference left between marriage or civil partnerships, as both need to be registered with the government and both ensure certain legal rights and responsibilities as pertaining to your partner.
You know who is not afforded a full plethora of rights or responsibilities? People who do not register their relationship with the government. Comparing marriage and civil partnerships to living together without any legal agreements, one sees the ease that comes with being registered with the government. In cases of domestic violence, inheritance, financial support – the stronger your legal registration, the higher the protection you are afforded. The system itself pushes you towards an institution that is steeped in patriarchal norms and traditions.
As a Pakistani feminist, the thought of marriage has been as much of a nightmare for me as a fantasy. I fantasized about my dress, and I dreaded the expectations of having children. While scrolling through Instagram looking at jewelry designs, I would be scared of ending up with a man who believed in a traditional marriage where the wife is beholden to her husband. I feared the financial dependency, the emotional manipulation and abuse, and the ridiculous norms of “serving tea” to prospective suitors. For years I toyed with the idea of simply avoiding marriage altogether. By the time I met my now-husband, I knew exactly the kind of man I wanted to be with. And I knew that marriage would be the only way to make the most out of the current financial and legal systems for both of us. Given that we lived on separate continents, if we ever wanted to live together, there was no other way to start that process apart from getting married. Furthermore—without diving into the correctness of religious beliefs—there is no denying the role religion also plays in promoting marriage. And Malala is a practicing Muslim. Are we now going to equate practicing your faith with being a bad feminist? Because this will very quickly lead us onto the slippery slope that France is determinedly attempting to climb.
While it has now fallen out of fashion to refer to various feminist waves, allow me some leeway in using that term for an easy distinction of what the feminist movement has been focused on throughout the years. Once the #MeToo movement started, there was the usual expected pushback from misogynist circles, but also, some feminists. Some of them were identified as second-wave feminists; second-wave feminism is broadly acknowledged to have fought the way society perceived women as belonging to the domestic sphere, that their place was firmly entrenched in the house and its parameters. While they were not very racially aware, these feminists demanded the right for women to work outside the home and be financially independent. When #MeToo was grappling with the patriarchal structures present in the workplace and the power dynamics that make it difficult for women to fight against harassment, these feminists were bristling at the seeming infantilization of women. Ironically, they did not recognize the pressure placed on these women to conform and be subservient within the systems they existed in. They believed that “a smart, competent young professional woman” would not be deterred by workplace harassment, expecting an unnatural level of stoicism and strength from her. I see this same expectation play out in the discussion around Malala’s decision to get married.
After the inevitable backlash, Malala released a personal essay where she speaks about struggling with the concept of marriage and how she talked through it with her friends and family. It is inherently unfair that a young woman who had just gotten married needed to plan for the pushback ahead and release an essay she penned in advance. She owes us nothing. She got shot in the head for daring to want an education. Surviving that harrowing event, she still advocates for girls’ education internationally. Her own countrymen shower her with hatred and death and rape threats every chance they get. And now we demand yet more from her? She exists in the same patriarchal structures as we all do. Yet from her we expect rebellion and rule-breaking at every turn. We do not give her the same grace we afford ourselves. The expectations of perfection from her are too high and too unfair.
Malala’s parents had an arranged marriage. She chose her own partner. By all accounts it seems as though she made the first move. Why isn’t a small step enough? Why aren’t we content to let people find happiness in the constrained systems we all have to live in? The photos from her wedding may be available for public consumption, but her decision and her marriage are not.
- Perez, C., “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”, 2019