Review – ‘Should I marry my cousin’, BBC3 – Iplayer release Tues 4th July 2017

In this intriguing program that deserves a main BBC outing, Habib a young Bradfordian worked her way through the complexities of decision-making around what she learnt was a significant cultural factor for families with links to north-eastern Pakistan. Her learning process took her through conversations about values, money, religion, culture, the impact on women, and crucially for Habib genetics.

Her enthrallment was captured in the film as she was tutored by her parents, who are not cousins, on the complexity of cousin marriages amongst each of their respective families. This was tempered by her shock at the findings of Born in Bradford study and results from the London Borough of Redbridge that had captured cousin marriages as a factor in genetic health conditions and early deaths of children. The impact of a communal knowledge about these issues was presented through anecdotally cross-community street interviews, some of which captured a stereotype often imposed on rural, isolated communities of ‘inbreeding’.

In an attempt to understand more about the risks of consanguineous parenthood Habib met with geneticists to explore what the issues were. She was taken by an uncle, who is an advocate of cousin marriages, to meet a cousin couple with disabled and non-disabled children, watched a Jewish genetic knowledge project in action and had her DNA tested. As a person with a dominant genetic condition, it was hard not to empathise with Habib’s struggle to both understand and quantify the numbers and statistics of risk but also to internalise and rationalise the emotional response to them.

‘Ideal marriage : its physiology and technique /’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Beyond this, I was struck by how Habib’s family stories were given no context within historical British culture and how fundamentally the concept of cousin marriages struck people on the street as something ‘other’. As a PhD student whose core research data is based on the genealogical reconstruction of family trees arising from within Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it is clear that we don’t need to go back many generations to start finding cousin relationships and a consanguineous marriage culture in parts of the country and parts of society.[i]

An English maternal great-aunt of my own, who had worked in the Somerset silk factories spent her life in a committed relationship with her male first cousin but by the time they had reached adulthood the British culture around marriage had firmly turned against them and the relationship was not formalised. For an understanding of which we can turn our gaze upon a father and son surname Darwin who were part of an upper-middle-class kin-group steeped in a consanguineous marriage culture.[ii]

George Darwin, son of Charles in consequence of his father’s work on evolution, attempted to study late Victorian levels of cousin marriages amongst the British by writing to elite families. He garnered a  mixed set of results in the late 1800s, from which he estimated a rate of 2-3% and also a level of ignorance about interrelatedness amongst marriage partners. An exploration of cousin marriages in other parts of Euro-British culture draws attention to rural communities where levels of and reasons for cousin marriages have been explored in places like Wiltshire and Aberdeenshire with context from the northern Netherlands. The findings are echoing what Habib heard from her circle of kin, a coherence of values between the marriage partners, knowledge of the necessary skills for the core family enterprise and their birth families and safeguarding of hard fought for assets.[iii]

All of which is recognisable amongst my own Aberdeenshire ancestors who would be placed amongst the mid-strata peasant tenants, typified by having some economic security but which required the usage of all family labour to maintain. Through the nineteenth century, with generation after generation, it is possible to see internal kin-family marriages, as well as sibling exchange marriages and also some family members not marrying as they displayed lifestyles, men as well as women, as ‘adjutants’ to siblings. This sort of society has been discussed by the French historical anthropologist Martine Segalen who noted cousin marriages as a component of peasant societies within Western European nations and hit upon the idea of stranger-cousin marriages. The notion being that the demographic facts meant that ultimately there would be a ‘kin’ connection between many couples but it was a coincidence.[iv] By understanding the web of social connections that can be recovered through sources like genealogical reconstruction, wills and testaments and newspaper clippings the density of kin across the British landscape, the heart of my thesis, can be apparent in a manner reflective of the village shown to Habib by her father.

The construct of the notion of a peasant society within the western European umbra has to be taken as suggestive of something past, marginal, non-modern. So very much dovetailing with attitudes today around cousin marriage and maybe in the eyes of some with what Habib encountered in Pakistan as she joined her parents passing the doors of grandfather, uncles, and cousins and viewing the ‘family’ land. Habib’s visit to her kinship’s place took in the village graveyard which was crowned by the tomb of a foundational patriarch. The family attachment exhibited by Habib’s father and wider relatives evoke a correlation for me amongst some Presbyterian Scots and Irish-Scots in the US studied by Gwen K Neville.[v] Neville’s work to understand extensive annual kin-gatherings, involving all the descendants of a single nineteenth-century farmer that have continued into the modern era, which she regarded as having a quasi-religious aspect to them. In her summary, Neville emphasised ‘The requirements of family and community over and against those of personhood and independent identity are a part of the conflicting demands on the Protestant individual.‘ Which equally serves as a good summary of the issues tackled by Habib, a young Muslim woman thinking about cousin marriage.

It would be remiss to conclude this review without an acknowledgement of the insight, Habib gained as a woman raised as she often alluded to in a culture that stresses individualism, about cousin marriage and women. Habib through discussions with her mother, deeply opposed to cousin marriage from her first marriage, grandmother, aunts and her similar aged cousins which while not convincing her about a consanguineous relationship surprised her that in some ways they created a safer space for women. This complexity has been studied in recent years by Muhammed Zaman through interviews in Pakistan’s southern Punjab from which a complex mix of individual choice and family influences emerge around cousin marriages including the nuances of this for women, well worthy of a read, just as this BBC3 program is a watch.[vi]

[i] Malcolm T. Smith, ‘Estimates of cousin marriage and mean inbreeding in the United Kingdom from ‘birth briefs’’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 33, no.1 (2001), pp.55-66.

[ii] George Darwin, ‘Reprints and Reflections, Marriages between first cousins in England and their effects’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 38, (2009), pp.1429-1439.

[iii] Andrew Blaikie, ‘Coastal Communities in Victorian Scotland: What makes North-East Fisher families distinct?’, Local Population Studies, (2002), pp.15-31., Hilde Bras, Frans van Poppel and Kees Mandemakers, ‘”Relatives as spouses: Preferences and opportunities for kin marriage in a Western society.”‘, American Journal of Human Biology, 21, (2009), pp.793-804., Cathy Day and Malcolm Smith, ‘Cousin marriage in south-western England in the nineteenth century’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 45, no.3 (2013), pp.405-414.

[iv] Martine Segalen, Historical Anthropology of the Family, J. C. Whitehouse and Sarah Matthews (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[v] Gwen Kennedy Neville, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion In American Protestant Culture The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life Working Paper No. 22, (Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, 2003).

[vi] Muhammad Zaman, ‘Socio-Cultural security, emotions and exchange marriages in Agrarian Community’, South Asia Research, 28, 3, (2008), pp.285-298., Muhammad Zaman, ‘Exchange Marriages in a Community of Pakistan: Adequate Social Exchange’, The Family Journal, 22, (2014), pp.69-77.

Author: collating kinship

Iain Riddell is a University of Leicester PGR commencing Nov 2014 focused upon building an understanding of the application of kinship as a tool to explore UK socio-political and economic history post 1800. He has previously worked in inner urban local community and faith-based projects, specialising in marginalised communities.

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