The truth about first cousin marriages in Pakistan

Research done at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad (the capital of Pakistan) states that more than half of the population of Pakistan marries their first cousin. This is a common practice globally in many cultures and countries, but it is far more common in Pakistan than in any other country with a high percentage of 55-60% marrying their first cousins. 


Consanguine marriages are not only common within Pakistan, but also a practice amongst British Pakistani communities.

Why do people do it?

For Pakistani families, marrying within the family guarantees that wealth/inheritance stays within the family and also ensures that family cultures and traditions are maintained. It is also believed that if the girl is within the family she will look after her husband's family well and with complete dedication because she has dual/several relationships with her in-laws.

Parents of the girls believe that their daughters will be treated well if she marries within the family. 

Back in the old days, in villages and small towns, where education and employment rates were lower, the chances of meeting a potential spouse were slim. So, it makes sense to marry a cousin, because there wasn't much choice.

When a person reached the age of marriage, the parents would first consider any matches within the family as that was easier than having to search for someone from an outside family. This way of marriage is called an arranged marriage, which is very different to forced marriage. See my previous article ‘The red shroud’ for more on this subject. 

Marrying a cousin out of love is very rare, but is more of a convenience.

For British Pakistanis, moving away from their hometown and leaving behind family is not easy. Many start a fresh life in the UK but eventually become fearful that they will lose their cultural values and, as a way to stay connected, they encourage or even force their children to marry back home within the family. This is an attempt to keep family ties strong and maintain family relationships

Others will frown upon the British culture i.e. clubbing, dating, pre-marital sexual relationships and as a way to prevent their children from engaging, consanguineous marriages will take place. 

Many in the community are unaware of the tragic consequences of cousin marriages. 

Genetic conditions can affect anyone, but the problem arises when the couple (related) both carry abnormal genes. If the baby inherits the gene from the father and the mother, in which case chances of the baby being born with genetic disorders will be higher, mental and or physical. If the baby is born healthy, then the father and mother may not carry the gene or the baby did not inherit it. 

In Bradford, one of the largest Pakistani communities in Britain, 75% of Pakistanis marry their first cousins, anywhere between 4 and 10% of the children in these families will be born with genetic abnormalities, these illnesses are often fatal. 

One-third of children with diseases caused by recessive genes will die before they turn five.

More than 70 published British scientific studies have shown that cousin marriages lead to an increased chance of having a child born with a rare genetic disorder. A significant number of these children will have serious kidney or liver problems. Many genetic and mental disorders are progressive with age and time and there is no permanent cure for these children.

With growing awareness of these facts and figures, over the past two decades, the practice of cousin marriages has reduced within some groups, but the custom continues. The older generation does not see an issue with consanguine marriages and believes that this practice keeps the bond and love intact between families. 

Views of the younger generation have changed with education and knowledge, whereas about 20 years ago most people did not oppose consanguineous marriages. It is slowly becoming outdated. 

In this day and age, most cousin marriages done now, where the girl or the boy are sponsored from Pakistan, are forced through emotional blackmail.  

According to the Forced Marriage Unit, 38% of cases reported (in 2020) were related to Pakistani families.

Forced marriages are illegal in Islamic law and without the consent of the girl or boy, a forced marriage is invalid.

Islamic view

The Islamic view is that, while it is permissible to marry cousins, it is preferred to choose a partner to marry from outside one’s family. Islam is keen on widening social circles and prefers marriages outside one’s family.

When genes are repeated over generations, the risk of abnormality in children increases. If the Pakistani community leaves the culture of cousin marriages behind they will benefit as society will grow. 

Other risk factors 

Health factor is known to be the most common risk factor when considering cousin marriages, however, this is not the only risk. Many people overlook the possibility of the marriage failing and what impact that can leave on the wider family. 

I have questioned older people from the community about their knowledge of health risks associated with cousin marriages. I was sad to see that many did not know much about it and those that had little knowledge chose to ignore the possibility of having a baby with disabilities. Families who do not carry any gene mutation showed no concern over the issue. But just because they do not carry the gene does not mean that a fully healthy baby is guaranteed. Repeated genes over generations increases the risk. 

Being a Pakistani Muslim myself, I have been questioned about why I research this subject and why I write about it. I think it is very important to raise this awareness for the groups and communities who are actively practising this as a tradition. The risks of not speaking about such topics are greater. 

Ironically, people shy away from talking about cousin marriages, but not from practising it.

To conclude, they need to be made aware that Islamic permissibility does not mean it is compulsory to marry within the family. 

As for the fear of hereditary disease, it is wise to have tests done if one wants to pursue a marriage within the family and seek medical advice. 

Counselling and psychotherapy can also help you decide if this is something you consider. Many people think therapy is for those going through mental health issues only but many people also access therapy to help them make a difficult decision through exploring emotions and how they anticipate they will feel about what they decide. If you are being pressured into a marriage, therapy can help you understand and get to the root cause of your emotions and issues which will result in you making a better decision for yourself and for your well-being.

Many people feel that they do not have an option but to listen to their parents, a professional therapist will support you and explore your options with you in a non-judgemental, safe and confidential environment. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6
Written by Sana Kamran, MBACP Integrative Counsellor
Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6

I am a Counsellor and work with people from all walks of life. My passion is to support people in their journey of healing and recovery, and raise mental health awareness to a wider community. I enjoy writing about various topics including:
Forced Marriages
Healing and recovery
Mental health
Watch this space for more articles

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