From bhaiya to saiyaan: The dangers of cousin marriages

Published: March 21, 2018
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Often the first na-mehram (not blood related) proximity you have is with your cousins.

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.

Fatima Kazmi

Fatima Kazmi

The author is a Ryerson School of Journalism alumna, former news intern, current layout designer, and future Master in Public Relations. Defying the odds since her conception in an IUD. Her instagram handle is miss.kazmi (www.instagram.com/miss.kazmi/)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Hussain Khalid Mirza

    It really does not mean when we are modernized, we forget that those acts which are not wrong to follow by any mean then why to criticize that ? The one thing you can clearly see in these marriages is that, these marriages have less divorce ratio as compared to those which are held outside of family.
    Yes! I agree with you that there are some psychological issues but that can be recovered. But to be against it completely is not a good decision.Recommend

  • Syed

    Miss Kazmi sympathy for the loss of ur sister . I want to add my humble opinion that marrying outside family is no guaranty that one of the partner won’t b carrying any genetic deformity rather it’s a blind shot. Need not cite examples.Recommend

  • Shahzad Aslam

    I like your lighter tone, fatima on this subject. Keep it up. Good subject, we should have more open discussions on this topicRecommend

  • Waqas

    My friend is gynecologist and she said their is no harm in cousin marriages, and it has no side affect either on parents or child.Recommend

  • Sami Thinker

    It is unpredictable that offsprings are gonna be carrier or not. I think we should not discourage cousin marriages but prefer to be outside.Recommend

  • Sajeda Rashid

    Between mutations and cariers… and same gene pool. Aren’t we all as human species from the same gene pool? Adam’s genealogy….. ?? OK, seen it all… please do explain this;
    1. my cousin brother married a Japanese girl totally out and beyond same clan,tribe. Yet they had a down syndrome baby girl. None for at least 4 generations from boy side.
    2. my cousin sister married my other cousin brother. out of 4, 1 kid with mild down syndrome,
    3. My mom and dad were first cousins, none of us 7 siblings had any genetic defect and all going strong upto 60 and beyond however my uncle and my auntie both being younger brother and sister of my mom and dad had 6 kids, out of whom, 3 were born with hearing/speaking disability.
    I can share countless other examples that defy this explanation….Recommend

  • M Hammad Khan

    I lost in between mutaution, carrier,

    but really sad to hear about your Sister.Recommend

  • khadimshah

    Well written. well said. 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)-
    Would you or do you ponder the theory, “being Muslims we believe marriages are based on fate and not decisions”?Recommend

  • Guest

    I married out of family and still my daughter was diagnosed with congenital heart disease at birth (Alhamdulilah she is leading a healthy life now after an open heart surgery) even though there was no such medical history on either side.Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Waqas, I can only speak for the team of Canadian doctors that dealt with my family, or my khala, a DOW graduate, or my best friend who’s a St. Andrew’s Medical graduate, or my sister-in-law who’s an ob-gyn in London. They all seem to have a shared opinion on cousin marriages. I personally haven’t met a doctor yet who says its okay but I guess there’s a first time for everything right :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Thank you so much for your kind words! :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Sami, thank you for taking the time to read this. It’s quite predictable if the parents are a carrier or an actual patient. I am sure a geneticist or a doctor would be better equipped to explain this than I can :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Hammad, that’s okay :) and thank you for your condolences :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Khadim, thank you so much for your appreciation :) I personally believe we make our own choices and when we mess up, Allah rescues us and makes it easier for us to carry on, but it’s up to us to make decisions and pray that we are making the right one :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi, I am relieved to know that your daughter is doing well Alhumdulilah and may she have a long and healthy life :) I cannot speak for her case because I don’t know what her exact condition was. My sister’s congenital disease (ARVC) is incurable, even if she survived a heart transplant, her genetic makeup would ultimately affect the healthy tissue. Marrying outside is not the ultimate guarantee for a sick free society, but marrying within the family substantially elevates the risk. In the end I can only share my experience :)Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Hussain,
    My nana was a doctor, he use to say science is the language of Allah, those who master it are closest to Him. I assure you, the study of genes has nothing to do with modernization or religion. Cousin marriages are allowed for the same reason that marriage in general is encouraged – so no one is left single without options. Even if you are a 60-year-old widow with adult children, you are encouraged in Islam to remarry, but how many of us actually support that? And whether the divorce ratio is high or low, that’s material for a whole different article.Recommend

  • Fatima Kazmi

    Hi Syed, thank you for your condolences. There is no guarantee for a sick free society by marrying outside, but marrying your cousin largely elevates the risk especially if there’s a chain of frequent cousin marriages in the family. I can only speak from my experience and hope it resonates with somebody else who’s in a similar situation. :)Recommend

  • Javed

    Hi Fatima,
    Well said. My parents and grand parents were cousions and non of their “surviving children” had any genetic disease (as far we know). However, we all forget that there were no genetic testing then and all who died in early age were “Gods will”.

    Although genetics is complex, still the diversity generated by out of cast/family marriages will produce fitter humans. Pakistani population due to increased malnutrition and cousion marriages is getting shorter and less fit compared to other societies. Cousion marraiages need to be discoutaged. I have studied/taught genetics for the last 30 years, so I can give my opinion with some knowledge.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Interesting topic …… and I liked the way you made the case. I remember reading somewhere that first cousin marriages doubles the risk of birth defects in children and although this is known, I feel other factors come into play when community, religion, status, social environment and such which put pressure when the choice has to be made. The advice given in your closing sentence was sound.Recommend

  • Hussain

    Agree with you 100%. Being a physician, and someone who has to deal with a lot of genetic disorders, there is no doubt that the risk of certain syndromes goes up many times in case of consanguineous marriages. The medical community needs to be more proactive about this, and advise against consanguineous marriages especially when there is a history of inherited diseases in the family.Recommend

  • Veer Singh

    Good article! There’s enough scientific evidence to prove a higher rate of deformities in children due to consanguinity (mating between first cousins). Pakistani government should ban marriage between first cousins.Recommend

  • Sudhanshu Swami

    Syed, There is difference between Probability and Guaranty.Recommend

  • Sudhanshu Swami

    Science and Spirituality are different subjects. Many things which are believed to be part of Religion are actually influenced by local culture and that particular period (and has nothing to do with spirituality, for example marriages, attire etc). Those customs should be changed periodically as per era and as per region in subject (customs of KSA wont be good in USA and vice versa).Recommend

  • Aqib Ali Shah

    Lol. I loved the line stating, let your bhaiya remain bhaiya, without benefits. :DRecommend

  • Hasan Kazmi

    Good Article,my chacha got married to his first cousin and their 2 children had thallasemia, so myself seeing my cousins in agony (one of them passed away same as my age) don’t encourage cousin marriages. I think there should be a proper medical test before such arrangements.Recommend

  • Arunanshu M

    First cousin marriages are not good for generations and an imperically validated medical fact. It’s prevalent among sections of south Indian Tamil, Telegu speaking population as well as Indian Muslims which have shown massive instances of congenital conditions in new borns. Such marriages are actively targeted by medical associations and the government through social reforms and awareness programs. A country like Pakistan can take a leaf out of such exercises if it’s serious about eradicating this problem.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    First cousin marriages are absolutely prohibited in Islam. Its clearly mentioned in Quran then why people are after it.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    The UK NHS is filled up with physically and mentally challenged kids; most of them are the result of chain-migration-focused cousin marriages from the northern Punjab part of Pakistan.

    British-Pakistani kids come at the bottom of the list, when it comes to “combined IQ” of various enthnicities tested individually; the prime reason: cousins.Recommend

  • Keyboard Soldier

    Causation does not imply correlation unless there is a significant scientific data to back it up; such as in the case of proxy-sibling wedlock.

    Surely; there would be thousands of cases, where kids get all sorts diseases due to the genes of their parents; but, compared to the probability of cousins, it is quite low.

    The discrepancy doesn’t even have to be physical; many cousin-marriage offspring have mental disorders of various degrees that pop out later in life.

    For the sake of example; statistics have reported that many kids born to cousins remain dependent on their parents way out in their adult life, because of their mental incapability to have a working career; or even sticking to one due to myriad of mental issues.Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    “It’s prevalent among sections of south Indian Tamil, Telegu speaking population”. In parts of South India, Hindu girls are married to the brothers of their mothers! Why?Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    The strongest argument against cousin marriages is the fact that Muslims have produced only two or three Nobel prize winners, since most Muslims indulge in cousin marriage. Look at the kind of politicians elected by Pakistanis!Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Hinduism forbids marriage between Blood relatives. It goes to such extant, people from same clan cannot marry. They are considered siblings. But this rule is broken in just two states- Tamil Nadu and Andhra. The results are bad there.Recommend

  • nubeals

    On the contrary, I think Phupos, given their reputation, would make the perfect saas! (I kid.)Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    Not correct. No bar on first cousin marriage anywhere in the holy bookRecommend

  • greywolf

    not really- i cannot speak to hindu law, but islamic law or shariah does not contain a single law that is in direct contradiction to rationality, logic or our limited understanding of science. those things can be stretched, but never contradicted. KSA is not a good example, because there is arab culture mixing with islam. the muslim contribution to science by muslim theologians over more than a thousand years is well documented, and far surpasses that of most other religious communities. that is a simple fact.Recommend

  • hamza khan

    this is not sufficient evidence of anything.Recommend

  • MJ

    I have several cousin marriages in our family. Most of the couples who were first cousins had at least one kid with some kind of issue, ranging from Autism to dwarfism to other congenital defects. However some totally unrelated parents had issues with their kids as well. All I can deduce is that the risk of having kids with issues increases when couples are married within the family.Recommend

  • Dawd

    That is just rubbish. The UK NHS is not ‘filled up with physically and mentally challenged kids’.
    What there is, is a statistically higher predominance of certain diseases amongst these people (increasing the risk from 0.5% to circa 1.0%).
    Neither is IQ a measure of intelligence (people can be coached to do well in IQ’s). But I challenge you to produce a statistical primary source for either of your claims (not a sensationalist retelling by a tabloid).Recommend

  • Dawd

    The stats I read mentioned it went from an average of 0.5% to 1.0%, however a more informed percentage can be deemed from family history. But I feel in general looking at a prospective spouse’s history of genetic diseases (and fertility) will present its own issuesRecommend

  • Junaid Alam

    Kudos to you Fatima for raising your voice on an important issue; however, your argument is based on an example rather than a principle. As a result, some of the people commenting here are finding it hard to accept your premise. I hope that you write Part 2 of this article and quote statistics to improve the credibility of your argument. Only then can the narrative of cousin marriages be changed, because people have internalised it over generations.Recommend

  • ABCD

    What about India with 1.0 billion+ Hindus and almost no cousin marriages except certain parts? I hope they have produced at least a few dozen Nobel Prize winners, right?Recommend

  • Shakir Lakhani

    Twelve Hindus have won the Nobel Prize, compared with only 2 Muslims. Population of Muslims is higher than that of HindusRecommend

  • Hussain Khalid Mirza

    yes you have a valid point that we are much afraid of the social talks about us, that is why we do not follow our religious norms bravely. The reason behind this I see is that we are a confused nation find some difficulty in choosing a proper path.
    appreciate your thoughts, that if you want to follow Islam then follow it properly.Recommend

  • The Shadow

    Your friend knows nothing.Recommend

  • Xyz

    Well beyond the medical risks, I cannot even imagine marrying a cousin I have grown up with. Sounds as yucky as marrying a real brother or sister. How can one marry someone they have always looked at as a sibling? No wayRecommend

  • voidist

    A much needed plea…Long term statistics more than bear the authors point outRecommend

  • voidist

    Get statistics from bradford council regarding illnesses like cystic fibrosis that plague the paksitani kids vis a vis other school children and you will have proof enough. If you want to , that isRecommend