Eighteen-year-old Hiba Maroof from Bradford, England is the very model of a modern person. The focus of the SBS VICELAND documentary Should I Marry My Cousin?, she is educated, self-assuredand ready to make her mark on the world. So it comes as a surprise to learn that not only is she contemplating marriage at such a tender age, she’s also considering marrying a cousin.
Despite the fact that cousin marriage is common in her large Pakistani family, Hiba is not under pressure to wed a relative. Her father, Maroof, is ambivalent, while her mother, Nuzhat, is firmly against it, as her own first marriage to a cousin ended badly. It is Hiba herself who is interested in examining some of the historical, cultural and practical reasons for the tradition.
Her journey takes her to Pakistan for an awkward meeting with some of her own cousins/potential husbands. She then returns to Britain, where she meets with an imam to discuss the Islamic perspective – it’s neither prohibited nor encouraged. Hiba also talks to an expert on sexual attraction to find out whether you can, in fact, be attracted to a blood relative (spoiler alert: you can).
By far the most sobering meetings are with a pair of married cousins with three children, two of whom are severely autistic, and a genetics expert, who outlines the statistical risks associated with cousin marriage. Hiba, who has a family history of deafness and the blood disorder Thalassemia, elects to undergo genetic testing to help her make her decision.
If you've grown up in a culture where cousin marriage isn’t standard practice, the very idea of marrying a cousin may be enough to make you recoil. But not only is cousin marriage legal in Australia, not that long ago marrying cousins was fairly commonplace.
The reasons Hiba is given for cousin marriage include the cultural – marrying within the same caste; the familial – making family the first priority, ahead of even a person’s own preferences and desires; and the pecuniary – keeping property and money within the family. It’s for similar reasons that, as Hiba discovers, over 80 percent of marriages in human history were between first or second cousins.
It's worth keeping in mind that for much of human history, people often socialised with family, and young ladies of good breeding didn’t get out and about much among the riffraff. Given that, it’s easy to see why marrying a relative was the rule rather than the exception – especially among cashed-up posh types who didn’t want grubby little commoners getting their hands on their dosh.
When we think about cousin marriage, many of us think of the royals. Queen Victoria was encouraged to marry her first cousin Prince Albert so as not to pollute the royal bloodline with anything less than royal blue blood. The fact she seemed to both love and fancy him was a nice bonus for her, but moot for the royal matchmakers. Unfortunately, despite being blessed with nine children, they were cursed with haemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder which would eventually kill their son Prince Leopold and spread throughout the royal houses of Europe, passed on by Queen Victoria’s daughters.
Another famous cousin-marrier of the Victorian era was Charles Darwin. Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgwood and had 10 children, three of whom died before the age of 10. Of the remaining seven, three did not produce any offspring, which modern-day scientists believe may have been the result of inbreeding.
In the documentary, Hiba's research puts her face to face with these genetic risks, as well as some fairly daunting statistics, leaving her to make an informed decision about her future.
Will she marry her cousin?
Find out now at SBS On Demand: