Culture & Society

Cousin Marriage and Gender Inequality

What higher rates of consanguineous marriage tell us about the status of women in the Middle East

Image Credit: Ilham Ismail/Getty Images

People in Western countries often cringe at the thought of first or second cousins tying the knot, a practice known as consanguineous marriage. However, in the Middle East and many other regions, such nuptials are natural. Moreover, due to rising gender inequality in the Middle East, consanguineous marriage may actually become more frequent.

There are many reasons why people might seek to marry their relatives. First, due to shared cultural values and social circles, there is a higher likelihood of spousal compatibility. Second, premarital negotiations over financial and living arrangements are usually easier between close relatives. Third, since relatives tend to live close to each other, a marriage between cousins increases the likelihood that spouses’ parents will live near to both their children and their grandchildren, whom they like to see.

Finally, in the case of wealthy families, marrying cousins can help keep financial and physical assets (especially property) within the family. In fact, this sort of tribalism was correctly identified by the Catholic Church as a threat to its ability to build its own wealth and power, and so it outlawed marriages between first and second cousins during the Middle Ages.

As a result, consanguineous nuptials in Western countries are rare (and sometimes illegal). In contrast, in the Middle East, where tribalism continues to play an important role in daily life—economically, socially and politically—marriages between first and second cousins remain highly frequent. For example, in 2009, the consanguinity rate was over 30% in Jordan, Oman, Syria and the UAE, while it was over 50% in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. By comparison, the rate was less than 5% in most Western countries.

But there is another reason why consanguineous marriage remains relatively popular in Middle Eastern countries: the weakness of women’s legal and economic rights compared to those of men. In most societies that accept consanguineous marriages, including those in the Middle East, the wife moves into the husband’s home upon marriage, often cohabiting with the husband’s parents and siblings. Thus, from the beginning, marriage represents a bigger risk to women than men.

This imbalance is reinforced by both formal and informal structures that favor the husband. In some countries, it is much easier for the husband than the wife to initiate divorce proceedings, and there may be guardianship laws that grant the husband veto power over the wife getting a job or purchasing property. Moreover, the economic landscape tends to favor men, meaning that it is harder for a married woman to achieve economic independence than it is for the man.

This kind of inequality exposes wives to mistreatment by their husbands, who might exploit the limited exit options that a woman has. This is especially true of a woman who fears that she will be left penniless in the event of a divorce. Even courts that nominally require men to provide financial support for their ex-wives may fail to enforce such requirements in practice, due to social and logistical barriers to the women securing their rights. For example, in some cultures, it is considered unbecoming of a woman to open a court case against a current or former spouse, and it reflects badly on any of her unmarried sisters, too.

Such inequalities accentuate the attractiveness of consanguineous marriage through two distinct but complementary channels.

First, when a wife is a member of the husband’s kin group, it is more likely (though by no means certain) that his sense of intra-tribal altruism will make him treat her well. In principle, a man is less likely to stomach the thought of physically abusing his first cousin, whom he might have grown up with, than a complete stranger to whom he has no prior affinity.

Second, when relatives marry, the wife’s parents are more likely to be able to shield her from mistreatment. Because they are the husband’s uncle and aunt, they meet their daughter and son-in-law more regularly, which means they receive a larger flow of information regarding their daughter’s welfare. Moreover, by virtue of their generational seniority and altruistic relationship with the husband’s parents, they will have a greater ability to directly influence the husband.

Therefore, in principle, we should expect to see higher rates of consanguineous marriage in countries with higher levels of gender inequality. To explore this hypothesis, we can use a measure from the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report known as the Gender Inequality Index. The GII is a holistic indicator of gender inequality across economic, social and political spheres, as reflected in actual differences in various health, educational and economic outcomes. Figure 1 shows the relationship between consanguineous marriage and the GII, where higher values for the GII mean higher levels of inequality.

These data indicate that while there is a large degree of variation in both variables, there does appear to be a positive relationship between the rate of consanguineous marriage and gender inequality.

As can be seen in figure 2, gender inequality has been decreasing in these same countries during the past 30 years. In principle, this means that we would expect a concomitant decrease in the rate of consanguineous marriage. Unfortunately, no such data are readily available.

While the 1995-2010 downward trend in gender inequality was undoubtedly favorable, the trend has lately started to peter out, and in the past few years, gender inequality has begun to rise for some of the world’s emerging economies. (An interesting outlier to monitor over the coming years will be Saudi Arabia, which has recently enacted sweeping economic, social and legal reforms to address gender inequality.) Moreover, the data shown in figure 2 predate COVID-19, and a growing literature indicates that the pandemic has further exacerbated gender inequality, with women facing higher levels of economic and psychological distress.

Consequently, we can predict an increase in consanguineous marriage over the coming decade, as more women express a preference for marrying relatives in order to shield themselves from the biggest risks associated with marriage. To avoid this outcome, Middle Eastern countries should enact laws and introduce social reforms that protect women from these risks and promote gender equality. As the American comedian George Burns once quipped, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

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