From bhaiya to saiyaan: The dangers of cousin marriages
I was surfing through the channels when I came across a TV serial, Mein Maa Nahi Banna Chahti (I don’t want to be a mother). I was able to grasp bits and pieces of the story – the heroine liked another man but her father coerced her into marrying her phuppo’s (paternal aunt) son. The phuppo, meanwhile, desperately wanted a male heir.
The storyline was repetitive and regressive but I stuck around for a few more episodes, and I am grateful that I did, because the drama tackles a crucial issue – genetic abnormalities in children born in cousin marriages.
Before pseudo theologians and geneticists come after me with tiki torches, I am well aware that marriage between cousins is permissible in Islam and other monotheistic religions. Many revered personalities married their cousins. Many married cousins have seemingly healthy babies. But being permissible also doesn’t imply that it’s preferred or idealistic.
Cousin marriages are convenient – it doesn’t require much effort to search for eligible matches. Siblings promise their children to each other as a sign of love and loyalty. Naturally, when cousins get married, other family members are less insecure about the changing dynamics a new addition might bring, after all why would you fear a person you’ve known all your life? This is particularly true for many women who feel threatened when their patriarchal proxies (husband, brother, son) – through which their power is exercised – find themselves shared with outsiders.
In reality, cousin marriages have largely benefited from power systems. Traditional patriarchy actively repressed free will and sexuality so falling in love and marrying an outsider became a no-no. Hence, arranging matches within the family closed all avenues of rebellion. Then came feudalism and monarchies that flourished with accumulated wealth. Feudal lords and monarchs discouraged the idea of dividing their wealth among people that were not par to their economic and social status. To ensure the estate remained within the family, alliances were formed among cousins.
As marriage became more localised, so did the gene pool. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes – each pair is made up of one chromosome from the mother and one from the father. They carry genetic data that includes physical attributes, personality traits and genetic mutations. If each parent is the carrier of a mutation gene, the chances are very high that their child will be born with the mutation. If only one parent is a carrier, the mutation will either cancel out or the child will become a carrier.
When a baby born into cousins is healthy, chances are that either no parent was a carrier or only one parent was and the baby may or may not be a carrier (being a carrier doesn’t mean you actually have the illness or condition). Also, if four babies are born to carrier parents, there’s a chance that only two of the four are affected. Unless the DNA formations are analysed, it’s impossible to really say. If I lost you somewhere in between carrier and mutations, try to understand this: by breeding within a selected gene pool, we are unable to cancel out bad genes.
How do I know so much? I am not a doctor, but I am a child of carrier parents. In 2002, my 18-year-old sister died from a cardiac arrest. She was beautiful, vivacious, active and seemingly healthy. The pathologist’s very first question was,
“Are her parents related?”
Her autopsy revealed she suffered from cardiomyopathy, a congenital heart disease that replaces healthy heart muscle into scar tissue. It is impossible to detect unless you go through a specialised cardiac testing. We had never heard of the condition before, and no one in my extended family had ever been diagnosed with anything similar. But here we were, sitting in the doctor’s office, trying to figure out the hows and whys of my sister’s demise.
My parents are first cousins, and their genetic composition revealed that the genetic mutation was most likely inherited through their fraternal grandmother’s lineage. Call it a sheer stroke of bad luck, but it just so happened that both my parents inherited the carrier genes from their fathers, who were also carriers. However, because both my grandfathers married women from other families, none of their offspring had congenital heart conditions.
On a lighter note, why would anyone want their phuppo to become their saas (mother-in-law), and why would anyone purposely ruin a perfectly happy khala (aunt)-bhanji (niece) relationship? I understand that there’s a no-boys rule in desi homes – calling your school friends Tom, Dick and Harry over at your house is not an option.
Male friendships are looked down upon in many conservative households, especially if the person is a stranger. Often the first na-mehram (not blood related) proximity you have is with your cousins. You might actually develop feelings for your hot cousin, and you may want to materialise those feelings into a solid marriage contract. Aur bhaiya ban jaate hain saayian (and the brother becomes the lover)!
If you are a consenting adult making a conscious decision, do whatever floats your boat. But if you can, for the love of God, let your bhaiya remain a bhaiya without benefits.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.