Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cousin Debate

Published April 23, 2013 - Muscat Daily newspaper. Click here to view the article.

Earlier this week during a brief jaunt to Muscat, I picked up some trousseau items for a young friend of mine who will be marrying her first cousin in a few weeks. Naturally the marriage is arranged, as is the case with most marriages at this end of the country.

Although he is her first cousin, she barely knows him. He approached her father for her hand in marriage and given the family connections, the father felt obliged to agree to his nephew’s proposal. The marriage was settled, a dowry was paid, and a wedding date was set. She was given ten weeks’ notice to get ready.

Like any good Dhofari bride, she will be so busy preparing for the wedding day that she won’t have time to think about what her future will look like with this man. She knows that she will be moving into a bedroom suite in her relative in-laws’ house. As for the groom, she may hit the jackpot and end up with a very nice guy who will encourage her to pursue an education or - heaven forbid - a career!

Most likely however, she will end up with a man who will get her pregnant immediately and then she will have no choice but to stay at home and be a good wife regardless of whether their relationship works out or not. If she were ever to consider a divorce, the entire family will pressure her to drop the idea.

If she insists, her father will probably swear that he will divorce her mother. The poor bride will end up being forced to remain silent and obedient.

Cases like this happen regularly in Dhofar. Not only are a large percentage of marriages arranged, but they are almost all between first, second, and third cousins. This tradition of inter-breeding goes back hundreds of years and is protected fiercely by the conservative south.

A few years ago a colleague of mine almost married a man from a different tribe. After the engagement, one of her cousins stepped in and swore she would not marry the man. He slaughtered a cow as a symbol of his determination to stop the marriage, and the poor girl’s engagement had to be cancelled because her cousin’s wishes had to be respected. As ridiculous and medieval as this may seem, the practice is very much alive in Dhofar.

Almost everyone in my immediate and extended family is married to a cousin. In fact, if I were to list the number of relatives who have approached me for my not-so-delicate hand in marriage, you would be baffled. At age 15, the first of the relatives came knocking at our door. The argument went along the lines of ‘You’re a treasure that must be kept within the tribe to protect you and keep the blood pure’. Treasure? Tribe? Blood? I’d almost forgotten we were living in the 21st century.

Rest assured that I do not intend to mock our way of life here in Dhofar, but I am concerned that this out-dated tradition may not be appropriate anymore. Not only does it complicate the idea of choosing one’s marriage partner for young people, but genetic and blood disorders are rampant in Oman. In fact, according to data published by the Ministry of Health almost 60 per cent of Omanis carry genes of inherited blood disorders. If this isn’t enough to put you off inter-marriage, then I don’t know what is.

The reasons behind the prevalence of inter-breeding in the south of Oman are purely tribal. Because Dhofar is a patriarchal tribal society, there is an obsession with keeping tribal blood pure and strong. Furthermore, some research has shown that inter-breeding can lead to higher fertility rates. Marrying cousins is also cheaper because dowries are lower, requirements are fewer, and the girl can easily move into her uncle’s house and get along with her in-laws.

If it were up to me, I’d ban cousin-marriage altogether. However, I would say a more logical and fair solution would be to enforce pre-marital genetic screening for relatives. Your thoughts?


  1. I agree on the genetic screening.

    It is also a problem in Ad dhakliyia and while it doesn't seem that any of the women from my family wish to marry out of our family (they are allowed if the other tribe is decent I guess or the man stronger than his tribe and family i.e independent [rare for even male Omanis]) there are rising infertility rates for us it seems, while alhamdulilah no serious medical conditions.

    For our families divorce can be quite difficult. Cousins make it hard, as you'll see eachother for the eids ect... and people take sides. I know many happy healthy cousin marriages, but I know more that are healthier who married another tribe.

    Also, what needs to be done away with is the notion that a man is not a man if he doesn't knock up his bride within the first year of marriage. I support young marriages between an intelligent young man and young woman and believe these strengthen our society. And I believe it is very easy to do university and a career while being married. Being a mother and doing that on the otherhand????? No way, nearly impossible. Men need to understand this, or they shouldn't marry a young woman and that's that.

  2. I agree about the logical suggestion. I know in my husband's family no one has major issues with children being born with disablilities but infertility rates are staggering, which I am sure is part of their cousin-marriages, because everyone who didn't marry from the family has sets of twins.

  3. In Dakhliyia region I am told the reasons aren't tribal--- it is more or less people know the men better, and feel is anything goes wrong they can step in and protect their sister/daughter better than if she married outside the family.

    Of course, makes the issue of divorcing harder, as often the one in a couple who decides to divorce is like, banished, due to awkwardness at Eids and stuff.

  4. LOL, sorry for the spam, I thought my first coment didn't post and then, couldn't remember exactly what I wrote and posted again.