Marriage between cousins was once fairly common, not least in royal circles, with Norway’s own king the product of parents who were first cousins. Now the Labour Party’s committee on integration, headed by Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, wants to ban such unions, setting off debate because of the stigmas it could create.
The head of the Norwegian Immigrants’ Forum (Norsk Innvandrerforum) calls the proposal a “travesty.” Experts are also skeptical, claiming there’s not enough medical proof that all such marriages can cause the genetic health problems that Labour fears.
“A ban is no solution,” Athar Ali, head of the Norwegian Immigrants’ Forum, told newspaper Dagsavisen. In contrast to Støre’s concerns about marriages between cousins, Ali speaks warmly about them and points to several advantages.
‘Slap in the face’
“It’s safe because one knows one’s cousins better than other outsiders. It’s common practice in Muslim countries. It’s important in building alliances for the family. A daughter-in-law, who is also a niece, is better-suited to look after the older family members than someone who doesn’t know the family well,” Ali claimed.
Ali, a former member of Norway’s parliament for the far-left Red Party (Rødt), is not worried by the increased likelihood of illness among the children of parents who are cousins. He emphasizes that more people now take genetic tests before marriage to check if it is safe for them to have children.
“As long as the marriage is voluntary, one can’t forbid it. Yes, there are instances of duress, but it’s increasingly usual for the partners themselves to be involved. A ban is a slap in the face to those who want to marry for love,” Ali told Dagsavisen.
Labour recognizes risks involved
Dr Ingvild Heier, a pediatrician at Oslo University Hospital at Ullevål, strongly criticized marriage between cousins in a recent letter to newspaper VG. She wrote that she meets many mothers who are unaware of the risk they are exposing their children to.
The Labour Party has taken up her arguments. The party’s committee recommends banning marriages between cousins because of the risk involved to their children and also to reduce the number of arranged, sometimes forced marriages, confirms Støre.
“It would be wrong not to do anything about this matter knowing the health effects and without trying to reduce the number of children harmed,” Støre told Dagsavisen.
Most common in Pakistani families
Marriages between cousins are now most common in the Pakistani immigrant community in Norway. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health published a paper in 2007 that concluded that around half of Pakistani-Norwegian spouses in Norway are married to their first or second cousin. Although the report states that the incidence of marriage to close relations is declining, figures from 2009 published by Statistics Norway (SSB) indicate that 35 per cent of married or engaged Pakistanis between 20 – 25 years old are married or engaged to a close relation. Many of the marriages are between a person who still lives in Pakistan and a relation with Norwegian citizenship, which can allow the person to emigrate from Pakistan to Norway.
Several experts disagree with Støre. Anthropologist Torunn Arntsen Sajjad has carried out a number of studies among Pakistanis that have children with disabilities. She does not refute the problems that such marriages can entail, but thinks a ban will make things worse. “This is not the way to avoid forced marriages or medical problems,” Arntsen Sajjad told Dagsavisen.
Fears of stigmas
Camilla Stoltenberg, physician and deputy director at the Institute of Public Health, has warned the immigrant community several times about the dangers of having children with a close relation. Yet she too does not believe that a ban would be best.
“I’m skeptical,” Stoltenberg, the sister of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, told Dagsavisen. “A ban might stigmatize those who are already married to their cousin. It could mean that patients fail to tell doctors that they are closely related, which is not good when judging medical risks.”
Ali fears that a ban could lead to a backlash resulting in more cousins marrying each other. He thinks the way forward lies through tolerance and information. Torunn Arnstad Sajjad agrees. She thinks that change must come from within the community. She warns against Norway spearheading a move to criminalize a relationship which is considered entirely appropriate in many cultures.