A recent study indicates a significant decline in the number of individuals within Bradford’s Pakistani community marrying cousins over the past decade.
Factors such as increased educational achievements, evolving family dynamics, and modifications in immigration regulations are believed to contribute to this decline, the BBC reported.
Juwayriya Ahmed, a 52-year-old teacher, recounts her experience of marrying her cousin in 1988. When her children questioned how she met their father, she humorously mentioned her lack of a conventional meeting.
Instead, her parents arranged the union during a trip to Pakistan, and her first substantial encounter with her future husband occurred at the wedding.
Ahmed’s children expressed their disapproval, deeming the arrangement “disgusting,” and vehemently objected to any possibility of a similar situation in their lives.
Ten years ago, a study examining the health of over 30,000 individuals in Bradford revealed that roughly 60% of babies within the Pakistani community had parents who were first or second cousins.
However, a recent follow-up study examining mothers in three inner-city wards indicates a decline in this figure to 46%.
The initial research indicated that cousin marriages approximately doubled the likelihood of birth defects, albeit remaining uncommon, affecting 6% of children born to cousins.
Dr John Wright, chief investigator of the Born in Bradford research project, noted a considerable transition within nearly a decade. Cousin marriages, once a predominant practice, have now shifted to becoming a minority activity.
He anticipated that this shift would lead to a decrease in the number of children born with congenital anomalies.
Cousin marriages are prevalent in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the ancestral origin of numerous Bradford families.
In some instances, individuals from Bradford are wedded to cousins in Pakistan, who subsequently relocate to the UK. However, there are intergenerational tensions within the community regarding this practice. Some young individuals strongly oppose the concept of arranged marriages, particularly cousin marriages.
A young woman said, our generation really fought against it. A decade ago, my mum was insistent on all of us having cousin marriages, but now she doesn’t emphasise that. Families realised they couldn’t exert control. They understood that residing in Britain, exposed to diverse perspectives, would bring about change.
The Born in Bradford study initially enrolled 12,453 pregnant women, irrespective of ethnicity, between 2007 and 2010. Subsequently, their children became part of the project upon birth, and their health has been under observation since then.
A follow-up study between 2016 and 2019 recruited 2,378 mothers from three inner-city wards, comparing them with the 2,317 participants from the same wards in the original cohort.
Among both sets of participants, mothers of Pakistani heritage constituted approximately 60% to 65% of the total. However, while 62% of these women in the original group were married to a first or second cousin, the percentage decreased to 46% in the later group.
The decline was even more pronounced among the rapidly growing subset of mothers born in the UK, dropping from 60% to 36%.
Among individuals educated beyond A-level, the percentage marrying a cousin was initially below the average in the initial study, standing at 46%. This figure has further decreased to 38% in the current analysis.
Despite the women being exclusively from less affluent inner-city wards in the latest study, researchers assert that they remain representative of mothers of Pakistani heritage in Bradford overall.
Neil Small, a professor of health research engaged with Born in Bradford since its inception, mentioned that various potential reasons for the rapid decline in cousin marriages are currently under exploration in consultation with the community:
• Increased awareness regarding the risks associated with congenital anomalies
• Prolonged education influencing the choices of young individuals
• Evolving family dynamics altering discussions about marriage between parents and children
• Amendments in immigration regulations making it challenging for spouses to relocate to the UK
Ayesha, a Bradford native, married her first cousin in Pakistan eight years ago, welcoming their first child the following year. However, due to new immigration regulations, her husband couldn’t move to the UK until their baby turned two.
During this time, Ayesha worked extensively as a home care worker to meet the salary threshold implemented in 2012 for individuals seeking to bring a spouse from outside Europe into the country.
However, she values cousin marriage as a tradition and regrets its apparent decrease.
Ayesha expresses her uncertainty about her children marrying cousins, feeling a sense of loss concerning their potential disconnection from Pakistan.
Interestingly, both of Ayesha’s younger sisters in their 20s have rejected the notion of cousin marriages. Salina, one of her sisters, recently wedded a man of her choice with their parents’ approval.
Expressing her perspective, Salina highlights her desire for an independent lifestyle and career pursuits, indicating a potential clash in values and lifestyle expectations with a partner from Pakistan.
Similarly, the other sister, Malika, plans to choose her future husband independently. She notes a shift in mindset from previous generations, emphasising the changing expectations for women regarding education and career aspirations before marriage.
Malika underscores the expanded opportunities for meeting potential partners among the youth today, facilitated by platforms like social media that enable connections beyond parental supervision.
The Born in Bradford team has undertaken efforts to educate the community about the origins of congenital anomalies. These anomalies arise when both parents carry a specific faulty gene, which may occur in unrelated parents but is more probable in cousin relationships.
These anomalies can impact various body parts such as the heart, nervous system, limbs, skin, among others, and can, in some cases, be incurable and fatal.
Dr Aamra Darr, a medical sociologist associated with the University of Bradford’s Faculty of Health Studies, emphasises that while cousin marriage is a risk factor, it is not the direct cause of congenital anomalies.
Referring to the 2013 Born in Bradford study, she highlights that the risk of married cousins having a child with a congenital anomaly is comparable to that of a white British woman aged 35 or older having a baby with an anomaly like Down’s Syndrome.
Dr Darr notes instances where health practitioners have attributed a sick child’s condition in the Pakistani community solely to cousin marriage, which she perceives as a form of “culture blaming.”
She asserts that such statements involve the politics of race and health, reflecting the minority’s judgment by the majority population.
Dr Darr notes the historical prevalence of cousin marriage within the white British population, exemplifying Charles Darwin’s marriage to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.
Professor Small indicates that approximately one billion individuals out of the world’s eight billion reside in societies where cousin marriage is customary. However, it has become uncommon in the UK.
In the Born in Bradford study involving 4,384 white British participants, only two individuals were first cousins with their partners, and three had more distant relationships.
Observations from a group of teenagers interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Born in Bradford programme suggest that the upcoming generation in the city might display even less inclination toward marrying a cousin.
An 18-year-old expressed discomfort with cousin marriage, regarding it “not very normal” and personally feeling “grossed out” by the idea. They affirmed their reluctance to marry a cousin from their native place.
Similarly, Zaara, also 18, noted the shift in circumstances from her parents’ generation, highlighting the increased ease of meeting diverse individuals in Bradford. She emphasised that while it’s still possible to maintain cultural connections, the current environment allows for broader social interactions, making marrying relatives less common.
Eesa, aged 17, remarked on the growing awareness regarding the elevated risk of congenital anomalies, which has deterred individuals from considering marriage to relatives. He indicated that the decline in cousin marriage cases is attributed to the absence of cultural justifications, such as preserving family land ownership, and more to individual preferences.
While Emari, 17, acknowledges the varying acceptance of practices across cultures. “However, we don’t see cousin marriages happening that often in the UK anymore,” she said.
Emari mentions her willingness to allow her parents to assist in finding a partner but specifies her reluctance toward marrying a cousin.
She trusts her parents’ ability to understand her preferences and believes they would introduce her to a suitable match.