Sajid*, a 20-year-old accountant from Luton, is stuck. His family wants him to marry his cousin, but they don’t know that he’s interested in another girl. I catch him on his lunch break – he’s understandably nervous about sharing anything he’ll later regret, since this all involves the people closest to him. “It’s just family politics,” he says, over the phone. “Because there’s one cousin that’s unmarried, I’ve got to marry her. At least that’s what their thinking is.”
Although his parents would never force him to marry against his will, he is hesitant to say no because he fears letting them down. He’s told his mum of his apprehensions, but not his dad. “It’s worse for him because his brother won’t like it if I won’t marry his daughter.”
We've only recently come to criticise consanguineous marriages – ones between relatives no more distant than second cousins – in mainstream British society. History is littered with countless examples of these unions; you'll no doubt be aware of land-owning families and the ruling class marrying within. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, are third cousins. Even Charles Darwin, a figure synonymous with evolutionary thought, married his first cousin.
While marriage between cousins has been legal in the UK for more than 400 years, polarised views make it a contentious topic – even within the communities that most commonly engage in it today. In the UK, that's most often perceived as the British Pakistani community. Figures are outdated, but small scale studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s exposed that consanguineous marriages occurred at a higher rate among young British Pakistani adults than they did among their parents. Those studies showed that more than half (55 percent) of all British Pakistani marriages are consanguineous. In a more recent study run between 2007 and 2011, it was found that 37 percent of the babies born to Pakistani parents between those years had first-cousin parents and 59 percent from parents who were consanguineous.
These marriages aren't restricted to British Pakistanis, though. “Most British people would be surprised to hear that in the UK, around a quarter of all cousin marriages occur within the white British community,” says Dr Aamra Darr, a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Health Studies, University of Bradford and Director of Genetics Communication Diversity. Nonetheless, both Labour MP Ann Cryer and Conservative MP Phillip Davies have called for a ban on cousin marriages, citing the health risks to children. In 2015, Baroness Flather, a cross-bench peer, caused a lot of controversy when she said that it was “absolutely appalling” that first cousin marriages between Pakistanis were causing “so much disability among children”. In the face of public criticism, and as attitudes naturally change, how does a new generation feel? If they grow up less keen on the idea, could it die out as a practice in our country altogether?
Sounding a lot like a man trying to make his peace with whichever side the coin lands, Sajid says, “Cousin marriage has both its positives and negatives. Your partner already knows your family and it’s easier for them to communicate with each other. Personally, I would like my wife to be close with my family. I don’t think a person from outside the family will be as caring towards them or communicate as well.” After hesitating, he adds, “But you kind of grow up with your cousins. It does feel weird that one day you might marry them. Another negative is scientifically, with the genes mixing up, leading to diseases, which I’m kind of scared of, because no one wants that for their child.”
As I hear from Humayun Ansari, Professor of History of Islam and Culture at Royal Holloway, cousin marriages are a complex phenomenon that involve political, socio-economic and emotional consideration. When people first began emigrating from Pakistan to the United Kingdom, the small numbers might have meant that it was difficult for them to find suitable partners in the country from within their community.
According to the BBC, while interracial marriages might appear to be fairly common today, they only make up 7 percent of all marriages in England and Wales. This could be because many people are more comfortable with partners of similar physical characteristics and shared cultural and ethno-religious backgrounds. In this respect, British Pakistanis are no different.
“The culture within a country like Pakistan is so diverse to begin with," says Tasneem-Summer Khan, senior advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, citing the various languages and cultures. "Outsiders look at British Pakistanis as if they must be monotonous or must have one overarching culture. That's often not true. To those of us living within it, we see the cultural differences.”
A scarcity in the UK led to many British Pakistanis looking for someone to marry in Pakistan instead, creating transnational marriages. Katherine Charsley, Professor of Migration Studies at the University of Bristol, believes that transnational marriages and cousin marriages are mutually reinforcing. “If you're marrying someone from a different country, and if you have concerns, for example, that people might be using the marriage primarily for immigration purposes, then the attraction of contracting a marriage with someone who is a trusted family member or who has mutual referees in other family members, can be attractive.”
For many British Pakistanis, cousin marriages are also a way to keep or re-establish connections with their families in Pakistan. It is hoped that the shared family values will translate into compatibility and a common support structure on both sides.
But as I hear from some people in their teens and early twenties, that doesn't guarantee interest in cousin marriage. Attitudes are shifting. “I wouldn’t marry my cousin because I consider them like my siblings,” says Ilsa, a 17-year-old student from London. “In my opinion, it’s an option. If you want to, you can get married. It’s not like your family is going to force you. It just depends on what the person wants.”
Alizeh, 18, and Mustafa, 21, study full-time in Coventry. Both are also not in favour of cousin marriages for themselves. Alizeh finds the concept of marrying a relative strange. “I’m so close with my first and second cousins that I can’t picture it ever happening,” she says.
“I don’t think as many people lean towards cousin marriages as they did before,” says Mustafa. He contends that even though it is allowed in Islam, in the 21st century cousin marriage can be seen as wrong from broader society’s point of view. He highlights that it might be frowned upon.
One of the reasons that cousin marriages are controversial, according to Professor Ansari, is the perception in people’s minds that they are often forced, especially onto women. But as Professor Charsley also points out, even the highest estimates show that forced marriages are in the minority. “In my experience,” she says, “parents usually just want what’s best for their kids. They want them to have a good marriage.”
That said, Professor Ansari believes that at times, a certain level of coercion on a personal level exists. For instance, even though Sajid does not want to marry his cousin, familial obligation and a feeling of duty to his parents means making the decision is extremely difficult for him.
Other opinions can factor into this pretty major decision. Now that British Muslims are much more integrated into wider British society than during previous generations, a lot of them are also mindful of views from outside their own immediate community. “If I get asked who I’m getting married to by the people I work with, I wouldn’t want to say I’m getting married to my cousin, because it would be embarrassing, and they would look at you in a different way,” says Sajid. “I went to school with my cousin and she was in my class as well. If I'd tell my friends I was marrying her, they would laugh at me.” Sajid’s views on cousin marriages were in line with a lot of young British Muslims I interviewed. While respectful of cousin marriage as an option for other people, they wouldn’t want one for themselves.
First cousin marriages do continue to take place, Professor Ansari tells me, but “the rate is declining as the younger generation of British Pakistanis, acculturated in the British educational system, increasingly question historically and socially entrenched marriage traditions, and insist on their right to individual choice, free of parental pressure.” They will also be an increasing awareness about genetic disorders passed on to children as a result of cousin marriage.
Neil Small, Professor of Health Research at Bradford University and Academic Lead for the birth cohort study Born in Bradford, argues against any legal restrictions on cousin marriages – instead advocating for “good information, good preventative services, and then good provision for those children and families that do find themselves with a recessive disorder that needs, sometimes, fairly intensive care.”
He believes that it can be a complicated issue for people to understand. “It's a low incidence risk,” Professor Small explains, “so most people won't have babies with congenital anomalies. But for the few that do, it will be a major problem.”
As I hang up after speaking to Sajid, his situation seems no more clear-cut. In the coming months, he’ll have to make the final decision – one many other British Gen Z Pakistanis will have to make – about whether he comes first, or whether his family's wishes do. In the meantime, he'll have to do what he can to get unstuck.