A recent interview of Malala Yousafzai - the 23-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner – with the British Vogue magazine caught everyone's attention, but mostly for the wrong reasons.
Malala's interview covered a range of topics, from how she coped with graduating from Oxford during a pandemic to her eventual plans of moving out from home, where she revealed how she has no inhibitions about going to pubs with friends and that her headscarf was more of a cultural symbol than a religious one.
But it was her bold comments on marriage that drew massive backlash among netizens, including many from Pakistan, her homeland. During the interview, she 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?"
A Pakistani Twitter user expressed his anger by saying that she should have been killed by the Taliban before giving such shameful statements on marriage.
One user claimed in Urdu that she was ridiculing the principles laid down by the Prophet (SWT), a revered figure among Muslims.
The overwhelming popularity and fame garnered by Malala, a beloved figure in the West because of the unconventional mix of Muslim-liberal values embodied by her personality has prompted many criticisms, based on how she has been an alleged 'torchbearer' of the Western ethos of women empowerment, despite hailing from a conservative Muslim background.
Social media users in Bangladesh also reacted negatively, with some users even lambasting and labelling her as the 'Taslima Nasrin of Pakistan'', a controversial author who identifies herself as a liberal, secular feminist and is barred from entering Bangladesh for her outspoken views against mainstream religions.
Malala's statement on marriage, however, brings forth the underlying debate on how the youth hailing from a traditional Bangali background perceive the utility, need, as well as cultural relevance of marriage as an institution today.
According to historians, in ancient times, the main purpose of marriage was to act as an alliance, a pact between two families, for either economic or political reasons (such as protection of kingdoms or estates) or both. Marriages were arranged based on convenience and, more often than not, the couple getting married had no say in the matter.
Even today, in the 21st century, in some cultures and religions, marriages are arranged on the same basis, keeping in mind the economic gains of forging an alliance.
But today, most people recognise that regardless of how a couple enters into the marriage, it is inevitably a bond between two people that involves not just legal responsibilities, but emotional attachments and commitments.
In Bangali culture, marriage represents not just the sacred union of two individuals, but the union of two families and extended relations as well. More often, the level of involvement of families is to the extent that the bride/groom is primarily selected by elders of the family.
In fact, even till a few decades back, the bride and the groom would see each other for the very first time only on their wedding day. This trend has however changed over the years, if mostly in the urban areas, and the younger generation today appear to have a better say in choosing their better halves.
But what perspective do young people have on marriage? Is marriage just an obligatory, age-old ritual for them, or a necessary framework to ensure stability within the community, and the society as a whole? Do some of them share Malala's views?
For the generations of our forefathers, marriage was a union based on convenience and necessity, with major functions including the formation of social bonds and procreation and in this way, marriage ensured a safety net for all parties involved.
However, the modern times have witnessed a shift in people's attitude towards marriage, with people turning their attention to independence and self-expression, instead of relationships governed by convenience and the need for a spouse to ensure material provision and procreation.
People today choose to marry for love or personal fulfilment.
According to the views of a young Bangladeshi male who wished to be anonymous, 'Marriage is just a binding social norm relevant to the culture. Because of widespread involvement of cultural universalism and relativism as well as change in the urban mindset of socialisation, today there are perhaps more individualistic ways of ensuring stability, rather than marriage'.
Another point of view looks at marriage as a form of constraint on one's sexual liberties. In the words of Hera Haque, an undergraduate student at the University of Dhaka, 'In the present day, I do not think marriage is a necessary arrangement. But, it has not lost its relevance as an institution, though only because it is too deeply rooted into the power-pleasure dynamics of the society. It is a social norm to limit our sexuality to the form compatible for procreation that is heterosexual monogamy. I don't think it is indispensable for social stability, rather it is necessary for capitalist power to flourish, as it limits the urge to sexual pleasure with a legal and moral frame'.
Conversely, a female opinion on the relevance of marriage in today's modern times iterates marriage's potential contribution towards maintaining social harmony, as well as macroeconomic stability.
'Marriage to me, is a prominent factor contributing to a stable society. In my opinion marriage as an institution has greatly improved the mental health of people, when done appropriately, and has clearly been effective in boosting economies for hundreds of years. It is an integral part of Bangladeshi culture through which our practices and norms are expressed and thus, I believe it is a necessary framework for our society'.
Despite all of the advantages of being married, a research by The Institute for American Values suggests that the institution of marriage is increasingly becoming less valued and its role more ambiguous. In the West, a rise in divorce rates, live-in relationships, cohabitation, liberties of having children outside wedlock, or not having children at all are all becoming popular choices in lieu of marriage and the stigma attached to these choices seems to be gradually fading.
In Bangladesh, and other countries of the subcontinent, attitudes towards marriage are slowly changing, thus reflecting the young generation's shifting values about pre-marital sex, birth control, and other alternative forms of living arrangements.
It seems that marriage itself has become less necessary in the minds of many young people. Also, as women become financially and socially empowered, marriage is no longer a time-bound compulsion, rather a choice that requires careful consideration.
The growing gap between reasons attributed to marriage by past and the present generation indicates significant, and often radical transitions with different ramifications such as an increase in the number of unmarried women or single-parent households.
It is assumed by many that occurrences of divorce, extra marital affairs, polygamy are likely to become normalized, which will simply go on to undermine marriage's function as an important driver of social cohesion.
The intergenerational transformation of cultural values and ethics have without a doubt impacted the young generation's perception towards marriage. Yet, even today for most young men and women, marriage remains an important milestone in their lives, and an integral part of life goals and ambitions that goes beyond the primal need to start a family.
With couples recognising the need for shared responsibilities not based on gender division of labour in conjugal relationships, many marriages have bloomed into wonderful partnerships, rather than just a binding commitment.
Malala's statements, which are a mere reflection of her personal opinion on traditional marriage procedures, may have hit a sensitive area for many religious conservatives, but such debates will inarguably give rise to newer discourses on marriage. Only time will tell what meaning the institution of marriage will carry for future generations.