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Traditionally in the Middle East, people prefer to marry those with whom they share tribal, clan or lineage affiliations. Cousin marriage is common in Kuwait and the region – encouraged by familial, social and economic ties. It is considered to increase family cohesion, minimize marital burdens (in particular, the financial burden on the husband), assure cultural and social compatibility, and safeguard inheritance within wealthy families. But nowadays, modernization and urbanization seem to be changing this mindset. Whereas proponents of consanguineous marriages explore the merits, those against the practice emphasize the health risks.
Consanguineous marriage (marriage between cousins) is an old Middle East tradition with both cultural and religious ties. Although some religions see it as a taboo, in Islam it is acceptable. According to Kuwait Medical Journal, consanguineous marriage is frequent in all of the GCC countries; various surveys, including national and hospital-based studies, report a frequency ranging from 20 to 58% of marriages, and even up to 80% in some isolated areas among selected tribes. The most common form is first-cousin marriage, followed by marriage between second cousins.
On weighing the pros and cons of cousin marriages, advocates list many reasons why cousins should marry. These include adjusting easily, keeping the family ‘wealth’ within, following religion and traditions, avoiding strangers, etc. “In this dubious world, I think it is better for someone to marry his or her cousin. The devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know. If you marry your cousin, you will see her as your relative and will not do anything to hurt her. Moreover, life will be easier because you know each other very well. Also, in case of any dispute, the two families can easily settle it amicably, thus reducing the likelihood of divorce,” Ali, a Kuwaiti who married his cousin told Kuwait Times. “I cannot marry an outsider when I have a beautiful, young, educated and well-mannered cousin here in our family. There is no need to look outside when all I need is inside,” he said.
For Ali and other supporters of cousin marriages, such unions strengthen family ties, coupled with other financial benefits. Buttressing Ali’s point, 28-year-old Ahmed Fahmy explored the advantages of marrying cousins and close relatives. “It is a good thing because cousins know each other and would understand themselves better. This will create a good family bond. The family benefits from the educational training and experiences she gets. It has been a very old tradition with cultural and religious links,” the young Kuwaiti business administration graduate explained.
Alia also doesn’t see anything wrong in consanguineous marriages even though she vowed not to engage in it. “It is OK, but I cannot do this. I grew up with my cousins, and I don’t have any conjugal love and feelings for them. I love them as my brothers. The feelings I have for them is not for marriage. I know it is an old tradition and it is not haram (forbidden), so there is nothing wrong in one loving his or her cousin and marrying them,” she said
An Abominable Act?
On the contrary, some people Kuwait Times interviewed see it as taboo and an abominable act. “It doesn’t look nice in this modern world. My cousins are like my blood sisters. It looks more like incest to me,” Frank, a student at the American University of Kuwait said. Reem Masad, a Kuwait University student, completely rejected the idea. “I can’t imagine marrying my first cousin. Yes, it is an old practice, but we are in an advanced world and the computer age, so we should know better,” Reem said, vehemently opposing the idea.
For Tarek Ahmed, an Egyptian expatriate, it is just a matter of choice. “Although it depends on individuals, in my own view it is better to avoid it. The disadvantages surpass the advantages. Cousin marriages is gradually fading. People are more educated and wiser now. They consider the social and health impact before going into marriage these days, unlike before,” Tarek said.
“Apart from its moral and sociological problems, medical researchers have demonstrated increased incidence of birth defects in children born out of cousin marriages. An in-depth study of consanguineous marriages has found that children born out of cousin marriage are more likely to be retarded - more so compared to non-cousin marriage,” Prof Micheal Diejomaoh of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Kuwait University said.
“Cousin marriages can increase the risk of inherited diseases in the offspring. Because there is greater increase in the propagation of hereditary disease in consanguineous marriage, medical experts in Kuwait are now urging couples-to-be to be tested for hereditary disorders like thalassaemia, sickle cell disease, asthma and other genetic diseases before they can marry,” Diejomaoh said. “If you cannot avoid it, it is important for couples-to-be to undergo some tests. It is also vital that they are made aware of dangers of such marriages,” he advised.
As the incidence of thalassaemia and other hereditary disorders grow higher, experts therefore recommend avoiding cousin marriages. “If this cannot be avoided, ensure that there is no family history of inherited diseases like thalassaemia, sickle cell disease, asthma, eczema haemophilia, epilepsy and some specific cancers in one of them (the couple-to-be). If there is family history of inheritable disease in both of them or if the blood tests are positive, such marriages must be stopped,” Dr May of Kuwait University said.
She argued that the health risks to children born into such partnerships must be addressed like any other public health issue. “The risk of having a child with a genetic disorder overshadows the cultural and social benefits of cousin marriage because the practice of marriage between cousins can increase the chances of genetic defects,” she said.
In his view, Prince E O, a sociologist, said that the advantages of cousin marriages are offset by the potential biologic risk to the offspring. Cousin marriages should be discouraged - diversity is good, homogeneity is bad, he advised.