Young, married, and under the spotlight

March 8, 2020

By providing young couples an uncritical platform, the media produces early marriages as an enviable possibility

This year, Pakistani couple Nimra and Asad became viral on social media because of their decision to get married at 18. The young couple has generated a polarising debate on the appropriate age to settle down. How has this couple managed to instigate debate in a culture that has normalised early marriages for decades? National morning show hosts eagerly provide a platform to Nimra and Asad to express fascination over what prompted them to make this decision at 18.

If the media truly wants to have a substantial conversation about early marriages, why has it failed to acknowledge under-age girls married to men twice their age. Why do anchors fail to interview parents who arrange these marriages, policy-makers who legalise it and men who think it is appropriate to be married to minors? Why have they not been subjected to the same line of questioning?

What makes Nimra and Asad relevant to a discussion on early marriages? It is not their age, despite the media claiming otherwise. What makes them relevant is the agency of choice involved in their decision to get married. This agency is further highlighted by the fact that Asad is also 18. The media is indifferent to young wives however it does not know how to contextualize the emerging trend of young husbands.

The opposition to Nimra and Asad’s marriage predominantly emphasizes that early marriages should not be ‘permitted’ – the ideology of permission ironically is the main cause behind consensual early marriages. Marriage carnivals take place to attain social acceptability and for partnerships to be permitted visibility. I do not think that the alternative to young marriages is a call for more authoritative imposition. Rather we should question our obsession with regulation and permission itself.

Nimra and Asad are 18 - they should have the agency to make their own life decisions. I will not condemn their decision to get married because if I started condemning marriages, the list would be endless. It would be inclusive of respected aunties and uncles, of friends who were of ‘appropriate’ age and of families who threw concerts to celebrate a contract.

The opposition to Nimra and Asad exclusively on the basis of their age by default suggests that the institution of marriage can avoid speculation at an appropriate age. The premise of a discussion on early marriages should take into account the bigger picture - why is dating stigmatised in our culture. The trickle down impact of stigmatization is that it places pressure on young couples to settle down – they see no other way of social acceptability. There is the assumption that genuine love has to find validation under marriage. Instead of further regulating young individuals such as Nimra and Asad by stripping them of ‘permission’ to get married, they need to be provided a nurturing society where getting to know each other outside of marriage is not considered morally questionable.

There is a moral-washing of love in Pakistan. Moral washing of love is the need to produce public narratives which validate relationships according to socio-cultural understanding. These narratives can allow ‘love marriages’ to co-exist with tradition which is threatened by agency. An obvious example of moral-washing is Hamza Ali Abbasi’s wedding announcement. Abbasi felt the need to explain marriage because he had picked his own partner.

He insisted that they shared a platonic relationship and he wanted to settle down to fulfill a higher religious calling. Abbasi’s statement drew social media ire but despite the absolute absurdity of his language, the foundation of his sentiment is essentially rooted in the need to align agency with moral tradition.

Similarly, the phenomenon of consensual marriages between young adults appears absurd to a wide audience – how do two young people decide to settle down at 18 without any family pressure? Young couples like Nimra and Asad will go on national television and simply explain their decision by categorizing it as love. And perhaps this is their reality at 18. They do not have the responsibility to intellectually explain the choices that they make, especially on national television. I would not want developing and vulnerable world-views to be subjected to over-whelming speculation at 18.

The responsibility therefore falls on our media. Journalists and anchors need to question the lens with which they approach this subject. Is it really necessary to provide national coverage to this couple especially if you are not equipped to deal with this subject in a critical manner? By providing young couples an uncritical platform, the media frames early marriages as an enviable possibility. 18-year-olds who explore relationships outside of marriage would be demonized and yet it is perfectly okay to make light of 18-year-olds who are married. This is how moral-washing is integrated into our system. It provides visibility to married individuals creating it as the only acceptable choice. The media does not engage with alternate possibilities – they cease to exist from the public narrative.

Early marriages between two consenting adults should not be condemned as illogical cases worthy of public fascination. These marriages are a natural consequence of our hyper-patriarchal culture – if the media truly wants to ask what prompted young adults to get married, they should look no further than the content that they create.

The writer is a PhD candidate in the gender studies department at SOAS and a freelance writer. Her research focuses on gender and visibility in Pakistani public spaces. She tweets @Naseeba76786991

Asad and Nimra: Young, married, under the spotlight