A proposal to ban marriage between first cousins in order to reduce the number of babies born with genetic disorders is proving unpopular in Tajikistan, where such matches are traditional.
Saodat Amirshoeva, a member of parliament and one of the architects of the bill, says studies conducted by the Tajik health ministry indicate that between 30 and 35 per cent of disabled people were born to parents who were close relatives
“Parents want their son to marry the daughter of his aunt or uncle, and they don’t realise this could lead to a child being born with a disability," she said.
Despite backing from medical experts and legislators, the law is facing resistance from the public. Many people see it as a step too far towards state interference in personal matters, and doubt the accuracy of the statistics being cited.
“There’s no proof, there isn’t a single study that shows children from these marriages are born unhealthy,” Firoz Homidov, a resident of the capital Dushanbe. “One baby in a thousand is born disabled, and they use that to tell us it’s harmful.”
Olga Romanova, head of the genetics department at the national Obstetrics Research Institute, says the evidence of a strong causal link between genetic disease and close blood relationships is real. She told the Asia Plus news agency that about one-third of the 630 genetic disorders recorded in newborns last year were attributable to first-cousin marriages.
Mariam Jumahmadova has lost seven babies, all within the first five weeks of life. Her doctor explained that there would always be risks because she was married to a first cousin.
“The death of every child hit me hard," she added. "I was very upset, and I told my mother she shouldn’t have arranged a marriage to a relative.”
Shamsiddin Qurbonov, an expert on reproductive health, says the centuries-old custom of marrying within small communities is a result of Tajikistan’s mountainous geography, where population centres are often some way from each other. This made cousin marriages a fact of life.
Repeated matches down the generations tended to heighten the chances of genetic problems being transmitted, Qurbonov said.
To help raise awareness of the issues, the draft law was made public at the end of March, following a series of programmes on Tajik state TV featuring interviews with medical experts on the dangers of marriage between close relatives.
The campaign is being stepped up further as the authorities try to win public support for the reform, and get the bill passed before parliament’s summer recess.
Opponents of change cite long-established Tajik customs and the acceptance of cousin marriage in Muslim tradition.
Dilishod Khalili, from Penjikent in northern Tajikistan, predicted that it would not be easy to change social patterns, whatever the law said.
“That’s how their forebears did things,” Khalili said, adding that cousin matches would continue “even if they’re aware that such marriages produce unwell children – and in fact this doesn’t happen all that often”.
Qobiljon Boev, a former member of the Council of Scholars, the officially-sanctioned Muslim body, said there was no religious proscription on cousin marriage.
“I know families where the son has married the daughter of his uncle or aunt, and they’ve had perfectly healthy children," he added.
Another reason for opposing the bill comes from the popular perception that Tajikistan’s government spends too much time telling people what to do in their private lives.
Past measures that have caused offence include a ban on lavish, ruinously costly weddings; regulations introducing dress codes for university staff; legislation that outlawed fortune-telling; and a campaign to discourage over-use of mobile phones for health reasons.
Few of these initiatives have really worked, partly because the officials supposed to enforce them are often happy to accept a bribe.
The authorities may find it hard to win over even people who support the principle, like Dushanbe resident Aziza Nodirzoda.
“I don’t support this kind of law, even though I am against marriage between relatives,” she said. “Passing this law will be an infringement of our rights.”
Siyovush Qosimzoda is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.