Monday, February 18, 2008

Family Values

When I read the Daily Mail article from the UK entitled I was forced to marry my cousin - it's normal in my culture, but SO WRONG all I could say was ugh! Why? Let me explain.

The article describes the experiences of a Pakistani-British woman, Khaleda, who was forced to marry her father's cousin, 20 years her senior and from Pakistan. She describes in this article, her devastation at this marriage and the process leading up to it. Her story is sad, scary, and heart-wrenching. It is difficult not to feel bad for her. No woman should EVER be forced to marry anyone. Every woman has the right to choose her life partner.

However, except for trying to tell the depressing tale of Khaleda, there is something horribly wrong with this article. The Daily Mail successfully depicts all Muslim and Pakistani families as tyrannical, heartless, cruel, and most of all, perverse.

The demonization begins immediately with the title of the article. The title appears to quote Khaleda as saying that being to forced to marry one's cousin is the norm in Pakistani culture. This idea is constantly reinforced throughout the entire article by quoting Khaleda as saying:

"Virtually every Asian girl I have ever met has an arranged marriage and the vast majority of them are to their cousins."

"And this was just one of many instances I would hear of."

Additionally Alison Smith-Squire, the writer, ends the article with "(a)nd so another young Muslim woman's life is ruined by this outdated practice."

As someone who is of Pakistani descent, the ubiquity of forced marriages to cousins is new to me. I have never heard of this being a problem. Cousins are often married to each other but to say that the majority of these marriages are forced is an amateur guess at best. To generalize this or any practice to ane entire culture, one with millions of people, is extremely unprofessional and not to mention irrational and nonsensical.

Yet, the worst aspect of this article is not the insinuation that forced marriages to cousins are common, but rather that this practice is disgusting, barbaric, and backward. This sentiment is repeatedly presented throughout. Let's look at what they say.

"Disgusted by her arranged marriage to a cousin..."

The disgust here is not presented as a result of the age difference or the lack of physical attraction, which would seem to be the more likely reason in this case, but rather as a result of their relation as cousins. Throughout the article, Khaleda expresses her disgust with being with her husband, with having him touch her. However, the sense one gets is that this disgust is due to the extreme lack of attraction toward her husband.

"I kept brushing them (her husband's hands) away, repeating 'no.' Tears rolled down my cheeks and, even now, I cannot talk of that night as it totally disgusts me." (Khaleda speaking of her wedding night)

But according to Khaleda and Smith-Squire this disgust is solely because he is her cousin.

"It is well known within the community that such marriages do produce deformed babies. No one talks about it, but it is one of the reasons why I found such a marriage to someone so closely related to myself to be so very repugnant." (Khaleda)

This quote tries to 'prove' how disgusting the Pakistani community really is. To allow such a disgusting practice to continue, knowing full well how disgusting this is, must be a sign of a perverse mentality.

"They had a baby daughter who died and when they asked doctors why, they were told it was because of inter-breeding. They were told the parents were too closely related to have a normal baby." (Khaleda)

This quote is accepted without question. No place in the article does Smith-Squire speak with a doctor. For Smith-Squire to accept Khaleda's version of the story when it could be hearsay is extremely unprofessional.

" is barbaric and unnatural." (Khaleda)

This quote is clear. Smith-Squire is using an 'insider' to demonstrate the 'reality' of the practice of marrying one's cousin. If someone who has experienced this situation, as extreme as it may be, declares the practice as barbaric and unnatural, then outsiders are much more willing to revile the practice.

"Marrying someone who is related to you...goes against all your natural urges. It is not racist to tell the truth. What I cannot understand is why it is allowed to go on in this country at all." (Khaleda)

Although stated by a Pakistani-British woman, this statement can still be read as racist. It may not be racist to state that one thinks such an act is barbaric and unnatural. But it is racist to assume that all Pakistanis engage in this practice and to paint Pakistani, as well as Muslim, culture as unnatural is racist and Islamophobic.

"Research has shown that babies born to cousins are twice as likely to suffer a birth defect than those born to a couple who are not related. While the risk is lowered if someone marries their father's cousin, it is still "reasonably high," an expert said."

Hmm...what research? What expert? Although I do not doubt that children born to related parents are more likely to have genetic defects, a source or two would have been helpful at this point, since so far Smith-Squire has made it clear her intention in this article is simply to defame Muslim and Pakistani cultures. Sources would have aided in decreasing this impression.

"Even as a Muslim I have no idea why families want to intermarry like this. I can only think it is to keep wealth within the family. But unless this practice is outlawed, more young Muslim women like me will have their lives ruined." (Khaleda)

This is completely simplifying the issue. To say "even as a Muslim" implies that most Muslims want to intermarry. How commonly it occurs within a culture is not necessarily related to what Islam states of the practice. Although marrying of cousins is allowed in Islam, it is not encouraged, therefore not meant to be common. It is allowed to give flexibility to families and provide an opportunity for marriage. It is meant to be a last option. However, unfortunately, very often, families prefer relatives, who are the known, for a variety of reasons, one of which may be financial. Additionally, the practice of marrying cousins is common among non-Muslim Arabs and South Asians as well. This is not just a Muslim issue. This quote, as well as many others in the article, imply that this practice is exclusive to the Muslim populations of the world.
Finally, Smith-Squire ends the article with an odd line.

"Just how many more babies will have to be born deformed, or even dead, before it is finally stopped?"

This statement appears to come out of nowhere. She has just completed telling us that another Muslim woman's life has been ruined by this terrible practice. No deformed baby has been mentioned for awhile and the one reference to this tragic occurrence is brief and quick. Although as you read further and further into the article the fact that Smith-Squire has an agenda, and what that agenda is, becomes clearer, this final statement completes the puzzle and does tell us that Smith-Squire is attempting to demonize an aspect of many Muslim, and indeed Eastern, cultures.

The entire article lacks a complex examination of the issue of cousin marriage. One woman's story is covered. Her disgust for her husband's unattractiveness is convoluted with her discomfort of marrying a cousin. Her one difficult situation is generalized to a culture of millions. Although, I do not doubt many women are forced into undesirable marriages among the global Pakistani community, to paint the entire culture as condoning this practice is dangerous. Additionally, I also do not doubt that many Muslims do find marriage to cousins to be disgusting or uncomfortable. But to demonize the practice of marrying cousins, without any examination of the complex reasons, circumstances, origins, and manifestations of the practice is not only dangerous, but juvenile and immature.