Malala’s remarks on marriage causes panic among Pakistani citizens, politicians

Islamabad: After Pakistani Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai recently expressed doubts about whether she would ever marry, her remarks have sent shockwaves in Pakistan – where citizens and politicians are panicking over what they see as a threat to the institution of marriage – as 86 per cent of women over the age of 25 are married.

In an interview with Vogue, when asked about marriage, Malala had 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?”

Malala’s remarks did not go well with several religious and political leaders in Pakistan. They have contended that life partnership was not allowed in any religion.

A religious leader in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Lakki Marwat district was arrested for threatening and inciting violence over Nobel laureate Malala’sremarks on marriage.

Sarah Khan writes for The Washington Post that the battle to change unequal structures of marriage has a long history within Pakistan and the backlash against efforts for equality often portrays them as “Western” and a threat to traditional values.

The extreme reaction to Malala’s recent interview, including death threats, is a part of a broader pattern of ‘Malala hate’, where feminist scholars are noting the misogynistic resentment of a young and vocal woman’s success, and how her representation as a symbol of ‘girl power’ in Western media makes her a polarising figure in Pakistan.

This backlash comes on the heels of a heightened political frenzy around a perceived threat to the stability of marriage in Pakistan.

Last month, in a bizarre move, a Pakistani lawmaker sought to bring a law making it compulsory for parents to wed off their children once they turn 18 years old.

The draft stated that parents of an adult who is not being married off after turning 18 will have to “submit an undertaking with justified reason of delay before the Deputy Commissioner of the District”, adding that those fail to submit the undertaking would pay Rs 500 each. The bill attracted widespread criticism.

Last year, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed concern about rising divorce rates, attributing them to foreign media influence.

According to Washington Post, the panic over rising divorce rates is not limited to Pakistan. In Turkey, the rhetoric around family values has become a “trademark” of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power.

Rising divorce rates may signal a crisis to be solved — or indicate that more individuals are exiting bad marriages. Research shows that easier access to divorce can save women’s lives.

In the United States, female suicide rates declined by 8 to 16 percent and killings of women by partners declined by 10 percent in states that introduced unilateral divorce laws, which allow marriages to end when one person wants out, even if the other does not.

In Pakistan, divorced women face a number of barriers and the backlash to Malala’s comments illustrate the social censure women who question marriage may face, writes Sarah Khan.

Moreover, divorce also leaves women economically vulnerable as Pakistan does not have legal provisions for alimony payments or the division of matrimonial property.

Meanwhile, only 23 percent of women are in the labour force in Pakistan. The status quo of economic dependence on men’s incomes makes choosing singlehood or divorce economically unviable for most Pakistani women.

Women’s low bargaining power within marriages manifests in high rates of domestic violence, low involvement in decisions about their own health and the use of household finances, and highly unequal divisions of household labour. Thus, it is not surprising that some Pakistani women might question what they see as an essentially disempowering and unequal institution, wrote Sarah Khan for Washington Post.

General scholars have also noted that the ‘traditional vs Western’ framework in Pakistan is more than a tool for politicians use to undermine Pakistani women’s demands and dodge accountability.