First Cousin Marriage: Keeping it in the Family

First Cousin Wedding in Pakistan

Many years ago, my father encouraged me to marry my first cousin. He told me that he had spoken to his brother who was in favour of the union. She was a nice girl and there would be a good dowry. The ball was now in my court to make the next move. I was not impressed by the suggestion and neither was Christalla …

I was fortunate to grow up in a community where freedom to choose your partner was more important than keeping wealth in the family and frankly, I told him to go to hell.

He grew up in a culture and at a time where parents routinely chose their children’s life partners and if they happened to be first cousins, then so much the better.

Throughout history, first cousin marriage has been common and currently worldwide, the percentage of marriages between cousins is estimated to be  more than 10% [Wikipedia]. In some communities it is considerably higher.

Percentage of First Cousin Weddings by Country

The Middle East and parts of Asia have uniquely high rates of cousin marriage. Certain countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have rates of marriage to first or second cousins that exceed 50%. Iraq was estimated in one study to have a rate of 33%, and figures for Iran and Afghanistan in the range of 30 to 40%. At the lower end, Egypt and Turkey have rates above 20%. [Wikipedia]

In Pakistan, one study estimated infant mortality at 12.7 percent for married double first cousins, 7.9 percent for first cousins and 9.2 percent for first cousins once removed. This is considerably higher than national averages which runs at 7.1%.

The physical and psychological problems associated with children born to close relations seems to be less important to families than the need to retain clan links and to keep family wealth intact, even if that means children are born with disabilities and unsuitable couples are chained together for a lifetime.

Amongst the UK Pakistani community about 55% marry a first cousin and in Bradford, the figure is 75%. Environment Minister  Phil Woolas said in 2008, “If you have a child with your cousin the likelihood is there’ll be a genetic problem” and Muslim physician Mohammad Walji has spoken out against the practice, saying that it is a “very significant” cause of infant death but still the practice continues.

Now, I don’t have a problem with first cousin marriage when the couple want to be together and are aware of the potential risks to their children but the idea of a union born of clan loyalty and family finances leaves me cold.

Most British Pakistani marriages are arranged, but these can be of two types: conventionally arranged marriages where the bride and groom have little or no say and what some British Pakistanis describe as “arranged love marriages” where the bride and groom play an important role in the choice of life partner. There are no statistics to prove the percentages of one against another but anecdotal evidence suggests that even today, love marriages are the exception rather than the rule.

I have in the past been accused of cultural relativism and told that my liberal attitude towards diversity is a function of my decadent, European sensibilities but even I am intolerant of a practice that is cruel, selfish and in the final analysis self-destructive.



About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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3 Responses to First Cousin Marriage: Keeping it in the Family

  1. Brumelda English says:


  2. Hugh Paxton says:

    No sodding way I’d marry my cousins. They’re ghastly!

    And as for forced marriages to cousins – the genetics are obviously skewed. This practice is selfish, child death/mutant/ village idiot/suicide bomber creationism at its least intelligent.

    Nice post, Steve!

    As always, thought provoking. And in this case, annoying!

    Why are these people so consistently stupid! So self defeating!

    Ah! Before I close! What was the name of the Scottish cannibal who spawned a family? Shawney Beane? Something like that. Lived in a cave. Married lots of his cousins. Didn’t work out.



  3. stevehollier says:

    I believe you are thinking of Alexander “Sawney” Beane, the legendary head of a 48-member clan in 15th century Scotland. Seemingly, he was executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.

    He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bannane Head near Galloway where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years.

    Their many grandchildren were product of incest. The brood came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Lacking the gumption for honest labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.

    The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith where they were promptly executed without trial. The men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death. The women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive…

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