Malala's Vogue 'marriage' remarks re-sparks Pakistan's penchant for intolerance

Malala's Vogue 'marriage' remarks re-sparks Pakistan's penchant for intolerance
Malala's exceptional interview with Vogue was marred by ferocious scorn in her home country of Pakistan, due to her comments on the non-compulsion of marriage. In a country embattled by religious dogmatism, Malala's comments revive a dark underbelly.
7 min read
08 June, 2021
Malala Yousafzai's relationship with Pakistan is bi-polar, one day Malala is pride of Pakistan, the next a symbol of betrayal to Western values [Getty Images]

When British fashion magazine Vogue unveiled women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai as their cover girl for the July issue it almost broke the internet – but not for the reason you'd think.

Vogue had already made history by featuring a hijab-clad woman on their cover back in 2018, so seeing Malala modestly covered with a silk red scarf draped over her head wasn’t as shocking as it would have been, say ten years ago.

Instead, it was her candid interview inside the magazine that stirred controversy, leading to a spew of Twitter abuse and even death threats from some angry readers.

In the interview, Malala told 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?

"My mum is like, don't you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful."

The words 'survivor, activist, legend' are emblazoned under her photo, and although she might not be the first hijab cover, Malala’s feature on Vogue - the biggest fashion magazine in the world - shows how highly regarded and respected she is in the West

Her comments, which some argue was taken out of context, sparked anger and outrage, mainly amongst Pakistanis and Muslims who felt she was encouraging co-habiting and fornication, which are both forbidden in Islam.

Soon after Twitter hashtags like #malalaonmarriage and #shameonmalala became trending.

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A formidable force, or a bad influence?

At the tender age of 23, Malala has achieved more than most of us could hope to in a lifetime.

After being shot in the face by Taliban insurgents when she was just 15-years-old, Malala was airlifted out of her home and flown to the UK where she received specialist medical treatment.

Her story shook the world as many learnt of how she had been campaigning for the rights of young girls in Pakistan to receive an education for which she was mercilessly attacked.

Following her recovery, she continued her activist work – bringing the plight of young girls into the spotlight. Since then, she’s been awarded a Nobel peace prize, runs a global charity, graduated from Oxford University and has received praise and adulation from the likes of Oprah and the Obamas.

And now, despite not being an actress, singer or model, she’s landed a cover on British Vogue. The words “survivor, activist, legend” are emblazoned under her photo, and although she might not be the first hijab cover, Malala’s feature on Vogue – the biggest fashion magazine in the world – shows how highly regarded and respected she is in the West.

The same, however, cannot be said for her homeland –Pakistan.

The more liberal community undoubtedly love her, and to them, she is a feminist icon and hero who has helped girls get an education through her global activism. But others see her as a puppet for the West. Someone who has renounced her culture and beliefs for global recognition.

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the less liberal Pakistanis (and other South Asian Muslim communities) are now outraged over her comments on marriage.

Pakistan is a fairly progressive country, yet the ideologies of the country are deeply rooted in conservative tradition and culture. Even the most liberal Pakistani citizen would wince at the thought of cohabitation and this is why Malala’s comments might have caused such anger among the community.

"They are interpreting her remarks not as hypothetical questioning but an actual denigration of our religious values and mores, if not an outright declaration that she's advocating people should 'live in sin,'" says Bina Shah, a Pakistani author and columnist who has written about the country's fraught relationship with Yousafzai.

"They're taking it as 'aha!' proof that Malala is not truly sincere, not truly modest, not truly a good Pakistani or Muslim.”

Outraged users on Twitter began posting death and rape threats to Malala, others wished that the Taliban had killed her off and some even accused her of being promiscuous.

The insurgents "could not hit a single perfect target," wrote Muhammad Arif Shahzad, in regard to the Taliban attack on her.

"Marriage is a Sunnah," Dawar wrote, referring to the practice of the Prophet Mohammad which all Muslims are expected to emulate. "Partnership is adultery."

Some Twitter users even went as far as to compare her with a Lebanese-American former porn star, Mia Khalifa. "Different faces but same profession!" tweeted another.

One woman, who identified herself on Twitter as an adviser to a politician in Pakistan's ruling coalition, accused Yousafzai of being groomed by multiple intelligence agencies to lead Pakistan. "It means the training abroad by M16, CIA & many others is complete," alleged Misba Zafar, "and she is ready to be launched as PM of Pakistan."

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Despite the social media backlash, Malala also received praise for her cover and many defended her comments, agreeing that it had been taken out of context.

Yousafzai's father, told media outlet NPR that his daughter's words had been twisted by ‘trolls’: "Social media misinterpreted what she said, taking out selective things out of context changing it and interpreting it."

Another user wrote: "Extremely graceful. Keep blooming...We are proud of you"

Twitter user @conceptofstyli1 added: “The hate that @Malala received (especially from Pakistanis) is so disgusting. Now imagine if she had mental health problems, reading all of that would just make it worse for her. Guys please, think before you speak. Can’t say anything nice then just shut your mouth and move on.”

Another Tweet sang her praises: "Looks beautiful! I never understood the hatred among Pakistanis against Malala. She is a Pakistani hero in the west & reminds the world that Pakistanis are humble, kind, resilient, compassionate, talented. Neither of the qualities exist in ppl who don't like her, lol."

Pakistan is a fairly progressive country, yet the ideologies of the country are deeply rooted in conservative tradition and culture

But, despite her celebrity fans, accolades and achievements, the criticism towards Malala remain amplified with people accusing her of promiscuity, betraying her country and renouncing her faith, following the publication of her article.

Nida Kirmani, a feminist sociologist, explains how this anger towards Malala stems from deep-rooted misogyny within Pakistani culture: “Many men are simply threatened by a vocal young woman and there is a jealousy that exists of a young woman who has made it so big internationally."

"Malala is perceived as the darling of the West,'" Kirmani adds. “That has also spurred a lot of conspiracy theories about her and the horrific violence she endured."


A post shared by Reformistan (@reformistan)

Outrage towards anyone misinterpreting or going against the religion of Islam is fairly common, especially on Twitter, and so the recent reactions towards Malala’s comments come as no surprise.

Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman