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17 November 2021updated 12 Oct 2023 11:28am

Malala Yousafzai is right to find feminism and integrity in the institution of marriage

If you don’t have children, a wedding could seem like an anachronism. But for mothers and would-be mothers, it is a feminist proposition.

By Louise Perry

Malala Yousafzai, the 24-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and activist for female education, recently revealed in an essay for ­British Vogue that she used to be opposed to marriage on feminist grounds, telling anyone who asked: “I do not want to get married… or at least not until I’m 35.” This was partly in response to her experiences growing up in northern Pakistan – where child marriage is common – and where a friend gave birth at the age of 14.

But Yousafzai has had a change of heart, as demonstrated by her marriage to Asser Malik, a 31-year-old manager with the Pakistan Cricket Board, who she met while she was studying at Oxford University. On9 November, the two were married in Birmingham, and Yousafzai writes that her new husband has helped her realise that, “I could have a relationship – a marriage – and remain true to my values of equality, fairness and integrity.”

Not everyone supports Yousafzai’s optimism. Taslima Nasreen – a writer and feminist activist – expressed dismay, not only at Yousafzai’s choice of partner, but also her decision to marry at the age of 24. She tweeted: “I thought she went to Oxford University for study, she would fall in love with a handsome progressive English man at Oxford and then think of marrying not before the age of 30.”

Implicit in Nasreen’s criticism is the suggestion that Yousafzai’s youthful marriage is a sign that she is insufficiently Westernised. Nasreen is right that 24 is a bit on the young side in the UK, as the average age for British women getting married for the first time is now 31. I also raised a few eyebrows when I got married at 25, with one feminist friend even telling me bluntly that she thought I should be sowing my wild oats, not committing so early to my university boyfriend (happily, she came to the wedding anyway).

Feminist queasiness around marriage is longstanding, presenting a common theme in much of the writing of Second Wave feminism. “The institution of marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women” insisted the US sociologist Marlene Dixon in 1969. Dixon outlined the dominant feminist critique of the time: “It is through the role of wife that the subjugation of women is maintained.”

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This feminist analysis views marriage as a way of controlling female sexuality. But that has never been its sole function. Marriage continues to offer a form of protection when women have children.

For most Westerners, the link between childbearing and marriage has been weakened. The old adage “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage” is no longer an intuitive sequence, as more than 40 per cent of British babies are now born out of wedlock. It is fashionable for couples to ban children from weddings now, an idea that would have bemused people of the past who believed that the whole point of getting married was to have more children around.

But then, the institution of marriage has been altered. The psychologist Eli Finkel has charted the historical development of marriage in the Western world, and attributes its changes to shifting economic conditions. Before the mid-19th century, the challenge of day-to-day survival, particularly for rural people, meant that assistance with food production, shelter, and protection from violence were what most people prioritised in a spouse.

Later, urbanisation and industrialisation led to greater prosperity, and couples had the luxury of placing more emphasis on love in their marriages. Then, in the affluent 1960s, we entered what Finkel refers to as the era of “self-expressive marriage”, in which self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth became the key markers of a marriage’s success. If you don’t have kids, that model works just fine: getting married can function as the cherry on the top of life’s other achievements, or else can be disregarded as an anachronism. But we encounter problems when we confront the inherent asymmetries of childbearing.

In any relationship, the person who carries and nurses the children typically ends up earning less than the person who doesn’t, since little children and the labour market do not make happy bedfellows. The gender pay gap in Western countries is actually almost entirely a maternal pay gap.

Contrary to popular misconception, common-law marriages are not recognised in the UK, which means that a mother who isn’t married to her partner is incredibly vulnerable financially. If the partner dies intestate or the couple split up, she has no right to his or her assets.

It’s not uncommon on online forums, such as Mumsnet, to come across a woman in pieces because her partner has said for years that marriage is “just a piece of paper” and she has now discovered, upon their separation, that it’s actually an extremely important piece of paper that would have protected her as well as her children.

Thinking about marriage in those terms isn’t very romantic, and I’d be lying if I said it was something I considered as a 25-year-old bride. But it’s also a problem that the Second Wave opponents of marriage never managed to solve, despite attempts at experimental forms of communal childrearing that rarely lasted long.

Unless we reject motherhood altogether – as some feminists suggest we should – we need practical ways of managing its asymmetrical joys and burdens. Whatever her critics say, therefore, Malala Yousafzai’s embrace of marriage has a wisdom to it. For mothers and would-be mothers, the old institution is a feminist proposition.

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand