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On Tuesday, Malala Yousafzai shared a photograph of herself in a traditional pink shalwar kameez, holding hands with a Pakistani man she introduced as “Asser” — her new husband. The two had just celebrated a small nikkah, or Islamic wedding ceremony, at home in Birmingham.
The image was forwarded in my family WhatsApp group, which spans five countries and three generations. “She looks gorgeous” and “elegant and sophisticated” were comments from my aunts, while my cousin responded with: “beauty and brains!” Another sent a simple heart emoji. When I opened Instagram and Twitter however, I saw that other reactions were not so simple — or kind.
What should be a positive and celebratory affair has surprisingly sparked a lot of controversy online, where anti-Malala disparagers are using the occasion to blast the 24-year-old. Many are calling her a hypocrite because of this quote of hers that appeared in the July 2021 edition of British Vogue: “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?”
I’ve re-read this statement numerous times, and it still doesn’t strike me as, well, anything to get upset about. The story was a personal one about a fresh college graduate’s passions, ambitions and beliefs, and, as any person who has once been 24 will tell you, our beliefs can change. Perhaps Malala candidly expressed her views and whims of the moment, and shortly afterwards met a young man, had an epiphany and fell in love. She is no hypocrite for deciding to “change her mind” about marriage, whatever the backstory.
Indeed, the backlash was so bad that Malala felt compelled to write an essay for Vogue explaining her previous remarks: “I wasn’t against marriage, but I was cautious about its practice. I questioned the patriarchal roots of the institution, the compromises women are expected to make after the wedding, and how laws regarding relationships are influenced by cultural norms and misogyny in many corners of the world. I feared losing my humanity, my independence, my womanhood – my solution was to avoid getting married at all,” she writes, going on to list ways in which marriage had failed many girls who she grew up with. She states that her newfound relationship with her husband allows her to practice a different sort of marriage – one underlined with “equality”, “fairness” and “integrity.”
Some have built up Malala in their minds as some extreme symbol of anti-patriarchy, and believe that by marrying a man, she’s conforming to the cultural norms she fought so hard to escape from. But we can’t hold her to such weighty, black-and-white ideals, and we certainly can’t equate cultural attitudes that encourage marriage (which isn’t always patriarchal) to those that can lead to violence against women.
Anti-Malala sentiments are nothing new among Pakistanis and Muslims, who have long held reservations about what exactly the young Nobel Peace Prize laureate symbolizes. Encouraged by her father from a young age to pursue her right to education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala was eventually shot in the head by a faction of the Taliban for her activism. She was 15 years old. Almost a decade later, now based in the UK, she has become a symbol of women’s rights in the global South. Yet, Pakistanis remain apprehensive. Some say she has become a poster girl of the selective Western movement to “liberate” Muslim women, while others question her agency, and whether she has any real sway in the partnerships, ambassadorships and causes she publicly champions. In 2013, her autobiography, I am Malala, was banned by private schools in Pakistan, and when she visited the nation in 2018, some even celebrated “anti-Malala” day.
Many have pointed out that extremist factions like the Taliban are only in existence because of Western colonialism, and that these fundamentalist Islamist ideologies are thus a by-product of British imperialism and American intervention. For the West to then proclaim itself Malala’s “white savior” is admittedly unsettling in the grand scheme of things. But at the same time, continuing to bring Malala into the crossfire reinforces a harmful “us vs. them” narrative. There is much to be said about the ongoing discourse concerning the supposed “civility” of the West and “barbarity” of the East — but those conversations can be had without centering a young woman who has done nothing wrong.
Malala is a spokesperson for gender equality and human rights. She is vocal about the Palestinian cause, she raises awareness about tragedies occurring in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and, as UN Messenger of Peace and co-founder of The Malala Fund, she has the platform and backing to advocate for female education. What more do we want from her, exactly?
Malala has not forsaken her culture — just the toxic elements of it, which, frankly, should ignite the activist flames in all Pakistanis. Sadly, those toxic elements continue to pursue her online, where the public subjects this courageous young woman’s life to the kind of scrutiny Love Island reality stars sign up for. Behind the awards, prizes and glamorous titles, Malala is human too. She’s a young woman in her prime, and she just shared one of her life’s most exciting moments online, where it has re-opened the floodgates for hate.
But alas, the Twitterverse churns on, and what began with critics deeming her a “hypocrite” has moved on to commentators dissecting Malala’s wedding announcement statement to show subtle hints at her continued plight against patriarchy. Was her use of the word “partners” instead of the traditional “husband and wife” terminology calculated? And was her failure to tag or mention Asser’s full name in the caption a “power play”? One can’t help to think that it would be far more mature and productive to just type “Congratulations” and move on.
I’ve been patrolling Twitter all day, still in shock at the amount of disrespect Malala’s countrymen — and women — are willing to dish out online. Though I caution myself to refrain from engaging, I can’t help but click “retweet” upon seeing a message by Pakistani author Bina Shah:“Malala doesn’t want to get married, people are upset. Malala gets married, people are upset. Maybe it’s you, not Malala.”