Marriage & Family
A man weeps inconsolably in a hospital corridor as he has just been told how his beautiful, dark-eyed child died in a hospital cot with medical tubes snaking from her frail body as nurses fought unsuccessfully to save her. Sick with pneumonia, the two-year-old gave up the battle for life.
They probably hadn’t gone to the right doctors you wonder. Perhaps they hadn’t been able to afford the steep hospital fees you ponder. The coroner shares that the parents are blood related – first cousins to be precise.
It’s time high time we confront this taboo: First cousin marriages in Muslim communities are putting hundreds of children at risk. It is a medically proven fact.
In no way am I claiming that this is the shared scenario with every marriage which takes place between first cousins. Birth defects in children of cousins are the result when both parents have an abnormal recessive gene. This arises mostly with generation upon generation of first cousin unions. Most people do not have these, but even when they are present, the odds of their children having them are only one in four.
Many medical reports also claim that due to the relatively miniscule chance of birth defects, it doesn’t warrant the taboo. Nevertheless, it is an ongoing sticky situation we must acknowledge, thrusting our country at the forefront of its receiving end.
A Security Blanket:
Pakistani Muslims unanimously believe that since the cousins belong from the same family it would be unproblematic for both of them to get adjusted. As cousins can be more at ease with each other and they know one another from childhood, the idea of cousin marriage is enthusiastically encouraged. If for any reason a crisis does occur, not only the parents but other senior family members have a say in the matter at hand. Remedies and solutions are offered and presented and either the impending predicament is nipped in the bud or resolved with reliable assurity.
This idea is not only followed by Muslims but also by other communities too. Muslims argue that this idea of cousin marriage was suggested by God and hence it is followed as their cultural practice. Above all, it is considered so commonplace that not many are willing to come forward and raise their voice on the issue of massive birth defects every year apart from doctors of course.
On the contrary, although many Muslim weddings are conventional, many are also between first cousins forced to marry in order to keep wealth and assets in the family. It’s part of our custom and culture which we are dutifully abiding by they boast – a diverging agenda perhaps? A reason to cement or boost their social standing and status within the family? It appears to be two peas in a pod – partly economic, and partly cultural.
Investigation Concludes Disparaging Results:
A thorough research carried out by Dr M Aslam Khan of the University of Health Sciences, Lahore indicates that there is a more than a 50 percent higher risk of inherited disorders like thalassaemia, deafness, blindness, mental disorders, diabetes, muscular disorders, blood ailments such as sickle cell anaemia, heart or kidney failure, lung or liver problems and myriad complex neurological or brain disorders in children born to first cousins. Though more common in first-cousin partners, marriages within the same community also carry a higher risk.
According to Dr Aslam Khan’s research, more than 80 percent of all parents in Pakistan are first cousins, seven percent are related by blood, about six percent belong to the same caste and only about four percent marry outsiders. In many countries, first-cousin marriages are forbidden and children of these marriages stand at 20 percent risk of having genetic problems.
Dr Aslam Khan carried out his research in Lahore, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Shaikhupura districts, in which 9,503 parents were involved. Of these, 44.1 percent were first cousins, 14.7 percent were relatives and 41.2 percent were unrelated. He found that, in the case of thalassaemia, 44 percent of the afflicted children were from first-cousin marriages. Of the 206 families interviewed in Lahore, 89 percent were first cousins. Out of the 720 children born to them, 318 were afflicted with thalassaemia. Many of those who don’t have the disease are carriers and can pass it on to their offspring.
British Pakistani Inbreeding Catastrophe:
A rare tragedy, you might think, in modern Britain, with all the advances of medical science. It’s quite the opposite. If you are to casually walk into a paediatric ward in Bradford or Keighley, you will find more than half the kids are from the Asian community. Since Asians form only 20 to 30 per cent of the population, that figure is clearly disproportionate.
British Pakistanis, half of whom marry a first cousin, are 13 times more likely to produce children with genetic disorders than the general population, according to Government-sponsored research.
One in ten children from these cousin marriages either dies in infancy or develops a serious life-threatening disability. While British Pakistanis account for three per cent of the births in this country, they are responsible for 33 per cent of the 15,000 to 20,000 children born each year with genetic defects.
The vast majority of problems are caused by recessive gene disorders, according to London’s Genetic Interest Group, which advises affected families.
The problem is most serious in Bradford. A recent survey of 1,100 pregnant women in the city showed that 70 per cent have husbands who are first cousins — a higher percentage than the average of 50 per cent among Pakistanis across the whole of Britain. Nothing short of an eye opening fact which cannot be denied.
A Muslim doctor trying to tackle the problem is Mohamed Walji, who runs a health centre in Balsall Heath, Birmingham.
‘The huge number of applications for child disability allowances in our multicultural cities and towns shows the reality,’ he explains.
‘We all carry mutations in our genome [the genetic blueprint for our body] — half of which comes from our father and half from our mother. But the chances of carrying the same mutations are higher in first cousins and those marrying within very close-knit communities.
‘If they both carry the same mutations, there is a one-in-four chance of having an affected child — which can result in anything from a mild disability to a catastrophic illness or a miscarriage.’
Dr Walji says the consequences are devastating — not only to the sick child, but also to siblings, parents and the extended family.
There are endless hospital visits and one of the parents has to become a full-time care taker. At worst, there is the trauma of watching a child die or suffer from a long-term illness with no cure.
Dr Walji has discussed how cousin marriages were damaging local families with the imam in his local mosque, who has since given lectures about the dangers of such unions to children.
‘It has had quite an impact,’ says Dr Walji, proudly. ‘It has led to fewer cousin marriages.’
One young mother, calling herself by the Pakistani name of Shenzah, wrote recently on Muslim medical forum: ‘I have a huge difficulty. I am married to a first cousin. My parents and my husband’s parents were also married to their first cousins.
‘Now I have one daughter with lots of defects and the doctor is sure it is due to these marriages.
‘I was against marrying a first cousin because I believed it would cause genetic problems, but my family forced me. According to them, what the doctors say is all nonsense.
‘I cannot understand why cousin marriages are not forbidden in Islam. The Koran doesn’t forbid it and this encourages people around me to disbelieve what the doctors say.
‘My daughter is not going to survive for long and the doctors are unable to find out what she is suffering from. They are sure if I get pregnant again, the risk for the next baby will be the same.’
She said she had two options: ‘One is to give up the idea of having any children, ever. The other is to get a divorce. Please, can anyone tell me what to do?’
These are despairing words which will bring little comfort to so many families across Britain.
British doctors, while admitting privately there is a crisis, refuse to speak out for fear of being branded ‘racist’.
In spite of this, Muslim websites promote and engage in open discussions on the evil of the issue. An Asian health worker wrote recently: ‘I went to two special schools in my city. One was for children with physical disabilities; the other with kids who had learning difficulties.
‘The children at the second school were aged 13 to 19. None of them was capable of functioning beyond the behaviour expected of an infant. They all wore nappies.
‘They didn’t speak, a few grunts aside. All needed inordinate amounts of special care, from doctors, speech therapists and so on. The parents are drained emotionally.
‘Of the six 16-year-olds at the second school, five were Pakistani and one was a Tamil. All had blood-related ancestry. I rest my case: cousin marriages don’t work.’
How To Tackle the Perilous Crisis?
- It seems imperative that a law be enacted to make pre-marriage screening of couples compulsory in order to indicate what risk they carry of passing on defective genes and what precautions they should take.
- If within your family tree, you observe endless generations of first cousin marriages being practiced, then I would suggest you be the wise one and avoid your own imminent marriage with any maternal or paternal sided cousin.
On an ending note, it should be mentioned that Senator Abdul Haseeb Khan is working hard at getting such legislation passed by the Sindh Assembly (with the help of Dr Saghir Ahmad, the provincial minister of health) and by the National Assembly.