If I have a daughter and my sister has a son, is it OK for our children to marry each other?
Ask this question and suddenly, everyone’s a scientist.
You increase the risk of having children with genetic defects.
So n so married her first cousin and now one of her kids has Leukaemia. Inbreeding, that’s the cause.
I don’t want a child with two heads, thanks, and marrying your fist cousin pretty much guarantees it.
If marrying your cousin increased the risk of genetic defects to such a degree, the majority of South Asia would have a huge issue with this very problem.
But it doesn’t.
Cousin marriages aren’t an occurrence unique to that part of the world.
Rumour has it that Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their respective cousins. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were cousins too.
But all that happened back in their day, when everything was in black and white and showering was an annual event.
It doesn’t happen so much outside of South Asia any more, does it?
Let’s ask Rudy Guiliani and his ex-wife Regina Peruggi who also happens to be …
… wait for it …
And as of the publication date of this article, they’re both still living in HD colour.
I’m not going to spend time arguing for or against the practice. That isn’t the purpose of this article. There are plenty of articles already written debating it to death.
Google cousin marriages and knock yourself out.
What I will do, however, is to shed light on why parents either living in South Asia or those that have emigrated West still decide to marry their children to their cousins.
I’ve seen it happen.
I’ve experienced it first-hand.
Most people are surprised to learn that I married my first cousin.
Their eyes grow wide like saucers and they fail to contain their surprise when I break the revelation.
What’s everyday cultural practice to me is a complete shocker for them
And I get it.
They think it was something that was practiced in the 1800s. When people didn’t know any better and there weren’t enough suitors to go around.
It isn’t something that happens in the modern day, is it?
Let’s rewind back to the 1800s for a second.
Back then, in what I’ll describe as tribal communities, it wasn’t about making the most of numbers.
It was about land and wealth.
If my daughter marries my nephew, this means my brother’s wealth stays within the family. We keep our land, our gold and everything else our father gave to us, through our children.
And the more land and wealth we have, the more powerful we are in the village. With education being non-existent and the village ruling itself, power’s what everyone wants.
So back then, it made sense to link your offspring and strengthen your status.
Fast forward to today and being married to your cousin isn’t about containing wealth anymore.
The distribution of wealth is different, political power’s with the government and your money doesn’t talk as much as it used to.
So why still do it?
The most obvious reason is that people are creatures of habit. Once something has been practiced for generations, it’s difficult to have an objective view on it.
And even if someone questions it (if only to have an intellectual conversation), they’re met with anger and rejection.
That’s the way it’s always been done
The practice isn’t questioned.
But it isn’t as simple as that.
Scratch beneath and surface, ask a few pointed questions, and you find that it’s about loyalty and trust.
If my daughter marries my nephew, then her in-laws have a vested interest in taking care of her. They don’t just look at her as their daughter-in-law, she’s their niece also. Which means they’ll think twice before supporting a divorce between her and her husband.
And her husband will do the same – he has an obligation to his aunt and uncle to take care of their daughter.
If there’s an argument between them, we as parents can get involved quicker and help them through their issues. We’ve known each other since we were born, so it makes understanding each other that much easier.
It isn’t the case if you marry your daughter to someone outside of the family.
We don’t know those people well. Conversations are awkward and, frankly, I’m a little nervous about talking to them about any issues – who’s to say how they’ll react?
Keeping the children in the family gives everyone more control.
And that’s what it comes down to – tradition, fear, comfort and control.
The fear of outsiders pulls parents back to what’s familiar.
Even if a divorce in the family would tear it apart, it’s still far more acceptable for this to happen, than to entertain the idea that a marriage outside of the family’s a viable option.
Change can be tough when you don’t know how to navigate the new practice.
The fear of outsiders is so big that, in Punjabi, they’ve been given a name – parai – meaning: strangers.
And that’s what they’ll always remain. Strangers.
Which begs the question – how different is it when one side of the family’s in, say, Pakistan, and the other’s in England?
The feeling of loyalty’s increased because now, when you’re the parent in England, you’re not only betraying your brother in Pakistan if your children don’t get married, you’re also betraying your country and forgetting your roots.
You’ve been taken by the dark West and face rejection from your own parents, your siblings and the village idiot if he’s so inclined.
And good luck to you if you want to marry Samina whom you met in university but your dad has a niece in Pakistan that’s ripe and ready to be plucked.
Getting that idea past the hierarchy’s a problem all its own.
You’ll be fed guilt trips about how disappointing you are as a child, you’re acting ‘white’, and how the family relies on you to keep it together.
Joking aside, cousin marriages for the second generation immigrant are a unique experience.
We’re raised knowing which of the first generation are married to their cousin, and even though we fully understand the science behind why it’s a bad idea, we accept it’s a practice our parents were born into.
Our education has taught us that, aside from there being alternatives, marrying into the family has negative implications on the health of our children.
But nobody really gives that much thought to their gene pool when they decide to marry. The thought alone of marrying a member of the family’s just … so … eeewwwww.
But explaining that to your parents (when you don’t have an alternative suitor) is ridiculing the tradition they’ve been raised in.
In the same breath, there’s no judgement when a friend or relative decides to marry a relative of their own.
But if you don’t accept it for yourself, then your upbringing can be used to your advantage.
You already know why your parents think marrying your cousin’s a good idea (well, the only idea) and you’re aware that the reason why they refuse to change their mind is because they’re afraid of the alternative.
Show them the alternative isn’t something to be afraid of.
What they want is for you to be happily married. That can be today, tomorrow, or in a few years’ time.
Show them you want the same thing (if you want to eventually get married, of course) and make it clear that eventually you’ll both get what you want.
It won’t, however, include your cousin in Pakistan winging her way over to England on British Airways.
Leave that practice for those that have the stomach for it.
That’s not to say every single family in South Asia practices cousin marriages.
We’re far too intelligent to make such an absurdly sweeping generalisation.
A lot of families have moved on and taken a more modern approach.
And once one family takes the lead, the rest follow.
Once one family makes marriages to parai acceptable, it’s easier for the rest to factor it as an option for their children.
Over time, this practice may dissipate altogether.
But until then, let’s all calm down about inbreeding and genetic diseases, shall we?
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