Young Gulf Arabs question tradition of cousin marriages

Wed Apr 4, 2012 12:08pm EDT
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By Regan Doherty

DOHA (Reuters) - Noor was not the first in her Qatari family to marry a close relative, but she may be one of the last.

Throughout the Middle East, Africa and parts of South Asia, marriage between family members has been widely practised for thousands of years, largely as a means of securing relationships between tribes and preserving family wealth, but also as a practical necessity given that genders are often kept separate.

"I wouldn't say that my parents pressured me, but I felt that society expected it," said Noor, who married her first cousin when she was 19. They had a son together but the marriage ended after a year and a half.

"We broke up because of the family dynamics, all the interference. It's not just the couple that's involved, it's the whole family," she said, wearing the traditional black head-and-body-covering abaya and declining to give her family name.

"This society has invisible constraints. They're never mentioned, but you have to follow them."

At least half of all Gulf Arab marriages are between cousins, with at least 35 percent of Qatari marriages between first cousins, according to current research by the Centre for Arab Genomic Studies based in Dubai. In Saudi Arabia, the number ranges from 25 to 42 percent while in the United Arab Emirates, it is between 21 and 28 percent.


At a recent public debate on intermarriage in Doha, much of the discussion focused on the tensions between cultural practices and the science cautioning against consanguineous marriage - defined as marriage between second cousins or closer.   Continued...

A Qatari wedding takes place in a traditional marriage tent in Doha March 27, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous