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Parents assume, and the brides are made to believe, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence. —Reuters
Parents assume, and the brides are made to believe, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence. —Reuters

Many Muslim societies believe domestic violence against women to be less prevalent in arranged marriages. Empirical evidence from Pakistan, however, paints a rather nuanced picture.

For centuries, parents of young Muslim women have forced their daughters into arranged marriages, often with their cousins, to protect land holdings or conform to their tribal customs.

Parents conveniently assume, and the brides are made to believe, that by marrying their cousins, young women will not be subject to domestic violence, that strong familial ties will guard against such violence.

Marital bliss or marital blisters?

The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) in 2012-13 interviewed over 13,500 ever-married women between the ages of 15 and 49. The USAID-sponsored survey provides a treasure-trove of data on the health and well being of women. The survey revealed that one in three ever-married women experienced physical violence since age 15, whereas one in five women experienced abuse in the year leading to the survey.

But physical violence is just one manifestation of abuse. Women also suffered emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses. Since the age of 15, two out of five women in Pakistan suffered, at least once, physical and/or emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses.

One in three women suffered the same in the year before the survey. Even pregnant women were not spared, one in 10 women suffered abuse while being pregnant.

Also read: Tackling domestic violence

For decades, married women in Pakistan have suffered in silence. More than half of the women whose husbands abused them never sought help or shared their sufferings with others. In their ignorance, the parents perhaps thought their daughters enjoyed marital bliss. However, domestic violence left them with marital blisters instead.

Family ties and family trees

The PDHS revealed that most women in Pakistan are married to their first cousins; only two in five women wedded unrelated spouses.

A relatively larger number of women married cousins on their father’s side than those on their mother’s side. This tendency is likely the result of family’s preferences to keep the agricultural land and other assets within the family even after the young women were married to their first cousins on the father’s side. The same does not hold for marrying cousins on the mother’s side.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13.

Dr. Nisha Malhotra, who teaches at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, is curious to find out if cousin marriages protect women from spousal abuse.

Working with the PDHS, she found that the answer to this question is not that straightforward because the incidence of cousin marriages are not uniformly distributed across the urban-rural divide or are spread the same way across income strata.

Dr. Malhotra found cousin marriages to be more pronounced in rural areas where they accounted for 61 per cent of all unions compared to the 50 per cent of all urban unions.

Also read: Violence against women ‘most rampant’ in Punjab

And, whereas, only 32 per cent women were married to unrelated spouses in rural areas, a much larger proportion of urban women (45 per cent) had a similar union. Again, agricultural land is more commonly found in rural settings, which may be the reason why cousin marriages are more pronounced in rural settings.

Another reason could be the fact that villages are often established by rather insular communities (bradaries) where a large number of inhabitants are direct relatives.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.

An interesting picture emerges when we compare the incidence of domestic abuse for the types of spousal relations. The following figure presents a breakdown of domestic violence.

We see that 28 per cent of women married to unrelated men suffered physical (domestic) violence. A slightly lower fraction of women married to first cousin’s on their father’s side (26 per cent) suffered the same.


Surprisingly, a significantly larger proportion of women married to second cousins suffered physical abuse than those who married unrelated men. We see similar trends for emotional abuse.

Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.

Based on the preceding graphic and discussion should we conclude that cousin marriages do not necessarily lower women’s odds of being subject to domestic abuse?

Not so fast, says Dr. Malhotra. Since well-off, highly educated, and urban women are more likely to have married unrelated men, women’s odds of experiencing domestic violence should be estimated after one has controlled the factors mentioned above.

Also read: Hit him back legally - Domestic Violence Bill

Dr. Malhotra estimated a statistical model where she controlled for income, education, and other related factors. She found that when we control for other mitigating factors, the odds of a woman to experience domestic violence are lower for those who married first cousins. The same was not true for those married to second cousins.

Despite the evidence showing less infrequent abuse in first cousin marriages, women should not be forced into marriages against their wishes so that they may avoid spousal abuse. In a just society, people are kind to all, and not just to their blood relatives.


Author Image

Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of Regionomics.com.

He tweets @regionomics


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (48) Closed



Gaurav Arya Jul 29, 2015 02:42pm

Amongst Hindus, you cannot marry a cousin. A cousin sister or brother is as good as a sibling from the same mother. Also, in many Hindu communities you cannot marry within the same village, as many villages are caste based. So lets say there is a Rajput village with 200 families. In all probability, all of them will be from the same gotra or sub-caste, making them brother and sister.

Rohit Sharma Jul 29, 2015 03:08pm

It is true that science has proven that there is a high risk of transforming genetical disordered when the marriage takes places between cousins. This is because a child can inherit properties from at least past 7 generations from his/her biological mother and father. Therefore, in Hindusm wedding is not possible till any relation from last 7 generations.

vicky Jul 29, 2015 03:14pm

It is scientifically proven that marriage in blood relation in not good and it harms the DNA structure....then also the people are following it....baffling!!

rajee Jul 29, 2015 03:36pm

interesting topic to research. i think the conclusion is that domestic violence is immune to marrying in relation or outside. spouse is not scared of abusing.

Awan Jul 29, 2015 03:45pm

I want to give my opinion here but unfortunately 95 percent traffic on Dawn news come from Indians and so my opinion will not matter. When in Islam it is allowed to marry your distant relatives then it is simply allowed. Since in Hinduism it is different so on this forum we will see a different opinion. In my personal opinion Cousin marriages or same tribe marriages infact has the least domestic violence issues . But cousins in bigger families do not mean immediate relatives. It could be son or a daughter of your relative that may belong from your tribe but do not have a direct blood relationship with you.

RK Jul 29, 2015 03:48pm

Genetic diversity needed for intelligent children.

Pashtunyar Jul 29, 2015 03:57pm

@vicky Cousin marriages unlike lets say ultraviolet radiation do not 'harm DNA.' They may certainly lead to an increase in some so-called recessive diseases sich as thalassemia which is why its more prevelant in countries such as pakistan where marriages between cousins are allowed or even encouraged. The overall risk of giving birth to a child with a 'birth defect' is slighly higher when compared to parents not related to each other but the increase in absolut terms is rather modest(from 1% to 3-4%) Other factors such as mothers age, smoking, enivornmental factors are far more important .

Mariya Jul 29, 2015 04:21pm

More should be done to tackle domestic voilence :(

shahzad-dubai Jul 29, 2015 04:31pm

Islam allows cousin marriages but forbids doing this generation after generation, i had heard Dr. Zakir's talk on this topic, would recommend all to watch it on youtube to get enlightened, he has explained this in a very scientific way.

naveed Jul 29, 2015 04:38pm

Can you prove that the abuse took place

Kiwi Jul 29, 2015 04:39pm

Domestic violence, physical or emotional, exist in every society whether you marry your cousin or outside the family. Even in the West.

shahida Jul 29, 2015 04:59pm

Good one.... Great survey

BRR Jul 29, 2015 05:04pm

Cousin marriages are more for economic reasons than for any other. Thus there is little room for love, tolerance or emotional support when the marriage is actually "a deal".

Shirazi Jul 29, 2015 06:42pm

What is this emotional abuse? I thought women are physically abused and men are emotionally abused but according to above article both are destined for women.

arshad Jul 29, 2015 07:02pm

I doubt whether the sample taken and the fancy charts retrieved from the analysis of its data truly represents the real picture.

Progressing Jul 29, 2015 07:37pm

Domestic violence has nothing to do with relatives or cousins,looking from outside the box since 99% of my family is not married into family,domestic abuse is there.Abuse is not the issue,its the culture we live in,its the respect the woman doesn't get or receive from her spouse and his family.Thats where the issue is.As for the cousins marrying,I have no idea and I'm not going to sit here and give my opinion since I have no known facts.

Progressing Jul 29, 2015 07:41pm

@Shirazi,You are obviously clueless if you think women are not emotionally abused,maybe you need to sit down and have a heart to heart with one of your relatives,and actually listen,you will be amazed how bad the women are hurting inside,I promise you.

KM Jul 29, 2015 07:51pm

Well I agree with the article here, since i know quiet a few women married to their cousins and suffering in the marriages. ( And mind you the women are educated lot viz doctors, engineers)

Rex Major Jul 29, 2015 07:53pm

@Kiwi: Domestic violence, physical or emotional, exist in every society whether you marry your cousin or outside the family. Even in the West.

... and hence it is to be accepted?

Wandering Around Jul 29, 2015 08:28pm

Domestic violence is non-existent in families where they don't abandon their daughters after their marriage.

Sana Jul 29, 2015 09:05pm

@ Shirazi, what an insensitive comment to make !!! yes women are destined for both physical and emotional abuse sadly to say whereas men are may suffer emotional only. i cant imagine a woman even trying to physically abuse her spouse as men are generally stronger...

aslam shaikh Jul 29, 2015 09:23pm

Yes domestic violence is on the rise. But ground reality has changed. Due to intense media campaigns dramas, talk shows, etc feminism is on the rise. Less and less women are abused. Instead psychological a physical abuse of men is on the rise.

Dabangg Jul 29, 2015 10:20pm

@Gaurav Arya I disagree. I know many Hindus who have tried to convince me that marrying a cousin is OK. I am talking about south Indians.

Dabangg Jul 29, 2015 10:23pm

@BRR Very well said.

Sridhar Jul 29, 2015 11:35pm

In social science one is trained to clearly define independent causal variable from moderating variable. The causal variable in domestic violence is not relationship prior to marriage. Most of the variables discussed in this piece are moderating variables. Will income level make a difference? Or, geographical location, educational levels make a difference? As the above article indicates these moderating factors are at best equivocal in explaining the frequency or intensity or type of domestic abuse. Primary causal factors of domestic abuse are propensity to dominate and control (need for Dominance; Authoritarianism), low self-esteem, low emotional intelligence etc. Socialization has a powerful role in creating misogynist attitudes. Certain societies transmit, generation after generations, the message that it is OK, and even necessary to prove one's superiority by abusing women, hiding behind the fig leaf of traditions. In absence basic civic protections to victims, abusers thrive.

rana1 Jul 30, 2015 01:55am

And these same women raise boys who victimise their spouses.They never change.

rana1 Jul 30, 2015 02:00am

@Rohit Sharma ....science may prove lots of theories but can you ask these scienctists why other genetic disorders are so prevalent within non cousin marriages?

Ahmed Jul 30, 2015 02:15am

Atleast there exist a survey on this issue. Very happy to see that this issue is gaining traction, altough it might be a good decade or two before it gets solved altogether but still its going at a good pace. In such cases it is the parents who are to be punished first because it is they who tell their daughters that they are the one who should compromise and they just tell them that leaving and getting a divorce is not an option to them. We need to start supporting our women, many of them suffer for ages just because there is no one to support them. The mindset needs to change, its as okay for a woman to divorce and marry again, as it is for men. We need to demolish the stereotype and start supporting our women to restore their place and get them their due rights.

rana1 Jul 30, 2015 02:19am

@vicky .....we can see that a certain genetic disorder of 'quick accusing others"is very prevalent amongst a certain community.

Pankaj Jul 30, 2015 02:21am

@Wandering Around

most logical comment even I have realized it.

Me. Jul 30, 2015 02:26am

@Shirazi emotional abuse is when someone feels threatened emotionally. It can be death threats to them or their loved ones, it can be husbands using abusive language which effects their wives like "you are not good enough" or "I wish I never married you" I am 13 and I know what it is because my parents told me about all types of abuses, and how to reconise them. I am surprised by your lack on knowledge on such a sensitive issue

rana1 Jul 30, 2015 02:43am

@BRR ....Almost all arranged marriages are more sucessful as there is more respect and tolerance unlike in the West,though they marry for love but divorce very early due to violence,alcoholism/drugs,infidelity,money problems e.t.c. The West may not marry into cousins but are as vulnerable as others to violence and genetic disorders.

rana1 Jul 30, 2015 02:51am

@Progressing .........well pointed.From my experience,almost all my cousins who are married within family,rule the household unlike the others who out of respect of social norms have to tolerate the outsider in laws.

Progressing Jul 30, 2015 02:55am

@Sana,Speaking of insensitive remarks,women are not DESTINED to be abused emotionally and physically as you claim they do,speak for yourself,how do I know? I have a mother,3 sisters,a sister in law,countless cousins and I am married,all living a very happy life.Please don't generalize.

A.S.Afd Jul 30, 2015 03:41am

I was instinctively aware of this entanglement,but this peace of writing even made it much concise & elaborated.@Sridhar u said it quiet good as well.

Vijay (Toronto) Jul 30, 2015 03:47am

@Dabangg South Indians also suffer from maximum number of genetic defects, same as Muslims.

KN Jul 30, 2015 04:49am

Its the male attitudes that are the issue causing domestic abuse...Family ties have no bearing. Men are becoming increasingly scared that they cannot treat women like dirt in the same way their fathers did, which is making them insecure and violent

Factual Jul 30, 2015 06:12am

The key aspects of abuse are education level of both, finance dependency, and influence of other family members. There is no significant diff in % of abuse in all marriages (arranged/within relatives/love marriage). However the moral support in case of arranged marriage will be bit higher and elders in family will have a say and hence less extremities.

Agha Ata Jul 30, 2015 07:37am

Marrying cousins has nothing to do with spousal abuses. The only hope parents have from such marriages is they know the girl or the boy, but not Always . They marry cousins because it is convenient for the parents to choose. Besides there is hope that the married couple would live close to the parents.

ramu Jul 30, 2015 08:21am

@Gaurav Arya That is not true. Many families in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu marry cousins and even uncles.

usman Jul 30, 2015 10:16am

Biggest domestic abuse comes from 2 factors. Lack of dowry and giving birth to daughters. will some one try to shed light on these factors instead of giving false impression about cousin or relative marriages??

illawarrior Jul 30, 2015 11:13am

@Sana Both men and women, suffer physical and emotional abuse. Some women have been known to beat their husbands, but the numbers are relatively small, compared to husbands beating their wives.

illawarrior Jul 30, 2015 11:20am

@rana1 I suppose a lot depends on how the "success" of a marriage is measured. In countries where arranged marriages is accepted as standard, a lot of shame and stigma is attached to divorce. Whilst it is easy for a Muslim man to divorce his wife, it is far more difficult for a Muslim woman to divorce her husband, and even more difficult for her to get custody of her children. She is also less likely to have a job that allows her to support them. For these, and other reasons, families apply strong pressure on unhappy couples to stay together. Is staying together in a miserable marriage a success? I think not.

Omer Jul 30, 2015 12:42pm

More data is required. This is not sufficient as it do not give a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve.

Raheem Jul 30, 2015 12:48pm

I have to say the statstics on cousin marriage is astounding. Heaven knows whether this has something to do with the conitive makeup of the offspring. Pethsps politically incorrect but how you explain the prevalence of violence from the same ethnic group but with and without high incidence of cousin marriage. Propensity of poor physical heath in inbreds are well documented. It's about time for a public awareness campaign against this vice.

a Jul 30, 2015 01:18pm

I guess educating people who have daughters is critical. When the parents of the girl think she's a burden from the very start, what good can she expect after marriage. Less number of children, max 2, respect and equal opportunities for both genders, that's what will change society. An educated and powerful girl will change many things in her community for fellow girls.

Allahwala Jul 30, 2015 01:49pm

Good evidence. I would like to have a complete reference to the study.

Pakistan is a conservative society, where not much interaction takes place between men and women. In such a case, parents are faced with the task of getting their children married and marrying their children with first cousins seems to be the most convenient to them (especially in case of their daughters). Murtaza is very simplistic in his recommendation at the end of the article.

Just Someone Jul 30, 2015 06:20pm

@Rohit Sharma : At the other end you have Germans who are calling to legalize incest between siblings.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/german-ethics-council-calls-for-incest-between-siblings-to-be-legalised-by-government-9753506.html