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KUWAIT: Marriage between cousins is a very old tradition in this part of the world. It has both cultural and religious ties. In some religions, it is acceptable, for example in Islam. But in others it is forbidden, for example among some Hindus, Christian and Sikh religious groups. There are many reasons for cousins to marry. Marrying in a known family so as to adjust easily, keeping the family’s ‘wealth’, marrying within the family because of ‘superiority’.
“It is better for you to marry within the family so that in case of any dispute, we can easily settle it amicably thus reducing the likelihood of divorce,” Sarah’s mother told her when she was about to marry her cousin. But the reverse became the case when Sarah (who later got divorced) had a little problem with her husband. “I thought it was really the best, but after wobbling in it for couple of years, we (me and my then husband) decided to part for good instead of dying in silence in the name of family ties,” she said. Sarah, a Kuwaiti, is now happily married to a non relation.
Supporters of cousin marriages are of the view that the strengthening of family relationships is of primary importance in the preference for close kin unions, with economic benefits an additional consideration. Some advocates of cousin marriages stressed much on its benefits and roots. “It has its root from both the Bible and Quran. The children of Adam and Eve married themselves in other to procreate. I really don’t see anything bad in it since the two major religions (Islam and Christianity) did not condemn it. At least the wealth will still be within the family and one can avoid marrying a stranger because the devil you know is far better than the angel you don’t know”, Hassan Ahmed, a schoolteacher argued.
Some see it as taboo and an abominable act. “It sounds so disgusting you know, how can one s-c-r-e-w his cousin? Simon and his fellow students at the American University of Kuwait questioned. I think it was allowed in those olden days just to increase the population then and also out of ignorance. We are in the modern world and such obnoxious behaviors got to stop,” Simon said. “My cousin is my sister - we are of the same blood. I can’t have sexual feelings for my sisters or any of my relations. To me consanguinity is incest. This is why most families don’t visit themselves in this part of the world because they do have feelings for their blood relations. It is a taboo and shouldn’t be encouraged in this modern time”, Dago Charles, a professional footballer said.
Apart from its moral and sociological problems, medical researcher have demonstrated increased incidence of birth defects in children born out of cousin marriages. Bundey, a professor in Birmingham University has done an in-depth study of consanguineous marriages and has found that children born out of cousin marriage are more likely to be defective - more so compared to non-cousin marriage. “Many research papers have demonstrated increased incidence of birth defects in children born of cousin marriages’, Dr Bill, a medical expert said.
Also, according a British journal of cancer, incidence of cancer and birth defects in children born in cousin marriages have been found significantly higher. “Consanguineous marriages can increase the risk of inherited diseases in the offspring. Pre-natal mortality is high among British Pakistani population largely due to an increased incidence of congenital malformation. About half of this excess is associated with parental consanguinity. There is also considerably greater increase in congenital disorders and handicapping diseases, and most of the excesses appear to be associated within parental consanguinity, the report said.
Also, medical experts in Kuwait are now urging couples-to-be to be tested for hereditary disorders like thalassaemia, sickle cell disease, asthma, eczema haemophilia, epilepsy and some specific cancers before they can marry. “Since it is not haraam if people avoid consanguineous marriage, it is very important to avoid it. It is also vital that our society is made aware of dangers of such marriages”, Bassel, a Kuwaiti medical student advised.
As the incidence of thalassaemia grows higher, medical 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, an associate professor in Kuwait University said. She argued that the health risks to children born into such partnerships must be addressed like any other public health issue.
Lizzy, a nurse, called for a stop to it. “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, 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”.