Sunday, November 20, 2005

Cousin Marriage

Labour MP Ann Cryer has called for British Pakistanis to stop marrying their first cousins after a study suggested that they were more likely to have children with recessive disorders than the general population (Guardian link).

This is always going to be a controversial topic to discuss, as proponents of discussion could be labelled as racists, xenophobes etc. What I find comforting is the tone of Cryer's speech.
I'm not calling for a ban or a change in the law because that would mean changing the law for everyone. I'm simply calling for an enlightened debate. We've avoided discussions on this subject.

It is encouraging that he is calling for an 'enlightened debate'. Too many times people in power tend to take extreme measures to combat a problem and it results in overkill.

Firstly, is it true that most Pakistanis tend to marry their cousins? On a personal level, I find it very true.

I was meeting a few high school friends for lunch. Given it's Canada, ours is quite an international bunch. We were catching up, when all of a sudden my Pakistani buddy turns to me and asks, "So Mezba, what about marriage?"

I was like, "man, et tu Brutus? My whole extended family's been on that one note nag for some time."

"Well, what about family? Any cousins?"

There was a stunned moment of silence for almost a minute, before I slowly murmured, "Well, cousin marriages are not common at all amongst Bengalis. It happens, but very rarely."

"Well," my friend continued, obviously not understanding why our Chinese friend was looking at him as if he'd just grown a horn. "Islam has nothing against cousin marriages."

Sure, Islam has nothing against marrying your cousin. Islam also has nothing against a 20-year-old guy marrying an 80-year-old woman, but that's not happening. Islam also has nothing against eating brocolli three times a day, but again - not happening.

Even Christians have debated over this issue. Leviticus 18 lists the forbidden relationships. Cousins are not forbidden nor is cousin marriage forbidden anywhere else in the Holy Bible (source). The restrictions given are very similar to ones mentioned in the Holy Quran, 4:22-25.

On another note, the main difference between Springfield and Shelvyville was - you guessed it - cousin marriage.

Back to the British MP. Like the Shariah debate sometime back, people who raise minority issues sometimes raise tham as they can be a convenient excuse to bash the community. In this case, one should take into account whether there is a hidden agenda behind this issue regarding British Pakistanis. However, regardless what one thinks of the MP's request to the British Parliament to ask Pakistanis not to marry cousins, there can be no doubt marriage amongst cousins, especially when recursively done for generations, have extreme negative effects.

It has been narrated that Caliph Omar Bin Khattab (R) saw an Arabian tribe called Banu Al-Sayeb (or As-Saib) whose bodies were very weak and emaciated because they used to marry their kins. Caliph Omar advised them "Marry outside your close of kin".

From the BBC,

But the statistics for recessive genetic illness in cousin marriages make sobering reading.

British Pakistanis are 13 times more likely to have children with genetic disorders than the general population - they account for just over 3% of all births but have just under a third of all British children with such illnesses.

Indeed, Birmingham Primary Care Trust estimates that one in ten of all children born to first cousins in the city either dies in infancy or goes on to develop serious disability as a result of a recessive genetic disorder.
We all have two copies of every gene. If you inherit one variant gene you will not fall ill. If, however, a child inherits a copy of the same variant gene from each of its parents it will develop one of these illnesses.

The BBC deals with the issue in detail here.

Centre for Arab Genomic Studies research data here.

Regarding cousin marriages, ManiacMuslim has this quote (himself a child of first cousins):
I personally prefer it if people marry OUTSIDE their family. Too many cousin-marriages will lead into quite the amplification of hereditary diseases and I’m sure the kids from the cousin-marriage will be scarred for life when they have to make a complete family tree for a school project. "But Abdullah," said Mrs. Elffab, "why does your family tree have interconnecting branches? It looks more like a family bush. Hey... waita minute." Poor Abdullah wasn’t the same again...

Marriage amongst cousins are practised in other cultures as well. Rural Pakistanis tend to be more conservative than other South Asians, unlike Indians and Bengalis who tend to have a more relaxed approach to religion, as influenced by Sufi-ism. In this regard, rural Pakistanis are culturally more similar to Iranians and tribal Arabs. We find that cousin marriages are practiced there as well. Albert Einstein married his first cousin (and he was a bright guy too). The royals of Europe are another example of interbreeding for generations. As I said, it's not a religious phenomenon, but a cultural one.

However, it is a topic that needs to be discussed within the British Pakistani community, in that, the Labour MP is absolutely right. We need to address why it's too popular, when Islam has repeatedly encouraged us to seek people for marriage outside of kinship. We need to discuss why many people claim marriage to a cousin (a known factor) is better than marrying a stranger. And we should not label those calling for discussion as racists. Debate is healthy, orthodoxy tends to promote stagnation.



Anonymous said...


There's nothing wrong with cousin marriages. Like any couple who have health issues kids will suffer. If parents are ok kids are ok.

Alcohol, adultery, and gambling causes more problems in society than cousin marriages, yet no one talks of banning them! The government of Ontario is even a shareholder in the gambling industry!

Also it's not just Pakistanis who practice it. It was prevalent in many Puritan Christian cultures as well. In fact it was around 344 AD that Christianity (St Augustine) who first said not to marry cousins.

- Farah.

Aisha said...

It depends. There can never be absolutes I think. Im the product of two cousins and I'm ok:) ( I think! )
But I do know my parents were wary of US marrying our cousins b/c thats further pooling the genes. I think a study said that the risk of genetic disorder is only 3% which is the same as non related people having kids most of the time. I do think continual intermarriage is bad for so many reasons. It causes issues between family members, it prevents you from expanding your circle to meet new people and expand your family circle, and exclusive or majority inbreeding does lead to defects. A friend of mine , her fam only marries in famly and there are a LOT of issues in the family. A lot arent big, like hemophelia (which is very very big issue in Saudi I heard), and things like that.... Some people have a policy in their family only to marry cousins.

I can understand it in Pakitan as my mom explained to me that in Pakistan, by marrying your cousin (in her generation) you KNEW who you were going to marry. With people who married outside their family they typically met their spouse on the night of their wedding. Imagine that. What would anyone prefer? In the US its a little different, (probably even in pakistan now)... so who knows how things will pan out for the future.

goBgoB said...

It IS rare among bangalies to marry their cousins, true, but there are some families who actually prefer it for the reasons you and some of the commentators have mentioned--that atleast you "know" the person before you are marrying them. And in some circles, even in bangladesh, the only members of the opposite sex you have interactions with on a more casual basis will usually be your cousins, and sometimes that leads to "love".

Personally, I myself find it disturbing to imagine marrying a cousin brother because of the fact that they are well, my brothers first and foremost. But to some people it's an issue at all--I have family members married to first cousins (and their kids, my cousins, are super smart)

mezba said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with the concept of marrying a cousin. The problem occurs when that is the ONLY option practised, and practised for generations. The people need to be better educated, that's all. If you are going to marry your cousin you should know there could be some risks.

Farah, But you are right about the gambling issue, I will post about it someday.

Aisha, you are right, there are issues with cousin marriages. If you are divorced from your spouse (and typically it's a bitter end) then you end up shunning your relatives.

Ipshi, yes, though you can never really know someone unless you live with them (shades of Salaam Namaste anyone?). But hopefully everyone will exhaust all contacts before considering cousins only as LAST resort, not first. Personally I think if I really know everythin about my wife before nikkah I would be bored super fast.

AT said...

the cousin marriage decreases ur gene pool and therefore, it might give rise to genetic deseases. Therefore, it's better not to marry ur cousins because in that way u will get more genetic variations. Therefore, a healthier child. Besides, marrying a cousing is just "ewwwwwwwwwwwwww..." (no offense to anyone) The thing is that we, cultured Canadians and also Bengalis look at our cousins sort of like our sisters and marrying them is kind of gross.

By the way, mezba, in some of ur posts u have mentioned "Bangladesh." Are you a Bangi? If you are, then, I would not be the only Bangi Canadian talking in the Canadian blogging world.

mayaboti said...

Offcourse there is something wrong with marrying cousins it makes you susceptible to genetic diseases because of the lack of variance in your genetic pool.
No one is talking of banning cousin marriage but clearly in societies where this is a common practice a platform for discussion is needed just like the need to educate people about the harmful effects of alcohol or gambling.
Also I understand in certain societies the only men you might come in contact are your cousins and some people might prefer to marry in their family.
Personally my cousins are like my brothers and the thought of marrying anyone is disgusts me but I do respect people for whom it is an ok thing.

mezba said...

Yes Arnab, guilty as charged. "Bangi", as you call it.

My blog is mostly about life as a Bangla-'desi' in Toronto, with generous doses of politics, religion and cricket thrown into the mix.

There are some other Bangladeshi bloggers in Canada as well - the whole list of Bangladeshi bloggers can be found on the '3rd world view' here.

AT said...

One of my friend's cousin actually has a disease (I forgot the name), which force him to change his blood every month or so. This is totally because his parents were cousins and carrying heterozygous gene. Therefore, the son got the homozygous recessive gene, which caused him this disease. Therefore, now I just blame their parents for their stupidity. Now-a-days, we have genetic screening and therefore, if u wanna marry someone very close, you better check it out.

Marrying cousins have nothing to do with religions in my opinion. It is a cultural and personal thing. I have seen a lot of Bengalis marrying their cousins because they want things to stay within families but seen many families avoiding it. Nevertheless, I did actually hear an individual saying that marrying cousins is encouraged in Islam because practically everyone is your cousin according to Islamic doctrine of eveyone coming from Adam and Eve. I think religion is brought in to justify the cultural tradition. For instance, Saudis have a tradition of marrying within their family not to "cross-contaminate" the blood. They would say that Islam encourages it to justify their traditions.

Mezba, good to see so many Bangis are talking in blogs...if u like politics, then check out the progressivebloggers site.

Anonymous said...

There are two sides to this issue,

Pro-cousin marriage extremists: Marriage outside cousins is seen as something akin to marrying outside ones religion. There is an obsesion to lnk every person to some cousin or the other.

Anti cousin marriage extremists (including some bengalis):

your son was clubbing all night, : oh fine

your daughter is having an affair: ah well, ajkalkar chhele meye

your son wants to marry his cousin: kiii? chhi chii chii, mukh dekhabo ki kore kauke?

Cousin marriage is condemned by some much more than actual "sins".

Crimson Mouzi said...

In the old days, marrying your cousins was all so popular because they didnt want their properties to go outside the family. So, if kids were marrying their cousins, by default the properties would stay in one big family. And that was one of the reason why Islam discourages cousin marriages because that would bring more economic equity in the community. I am sorry I don't have the sources but it was one of the reasons.

mezba said...

It's true, I read somewhere that in Islam if there is no will the property will go to the kids and surviving spouse but if there are NO kids then sometimes the brother, sister, niece or nephew will get a slice of property, therefore marrying cousins ensure it 'remains in the family'.

But that must have been older times, nowadays reasons for marrying cousins might be differents. It's OK as long as it's a one-off or people understand the risk, but its the culture of doing it within the same family for generations that causes alarm for the British MP.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Labour Party MP Ann Cryer is a lady not a gent - not that that makes any difference, or does it?

mezba said...

Oops my bad. Typo.