DOHA - Marriages between family members are sparking a heated debate in the Arab Gulf region, with some believe that the practice helps securing relationships, while others see it contradicting with modern lifestyles.
"We're very proud of our extended family lifestyle," Saudi author Samar Fatany told Reuters.
"It's something we don't want to lose."
Intermarriages among family members are common in the Gulf Arab region as well as Africa and parts of South Asia.
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The practice is largely seen by family members as a means of securing relationships between tribes and preserving family wealth.
According to a research by the Center Genomic Studies in Dubai, at least half of all Gulf Arab marriages are between cousins.
For instance, in Qatar, at least 35 percent of Qatari marriages are between first cousins.
In Saudi Arabia, the number ranges from 25 to 42 percent while in the United Arab Emirates, it is between 21 and 28 percent.
Supporters say intermarriages between family members promote harmony and stability within the family, and encourages a family-focused way of life.
"There's a misconception that parents often force their daughters to marry within the family," Fatany said.
"Our segregated lifestyle often doesn't allow for mixing of the sexes except within the family environment, so many times the only chance of falling in love is within the family, because you are completely closed off from others."
But opponents say that family intermarriages often turn into divorce.
"I wouldn't say that my parents pressured me, but I felt that society expected it," said Noor, a Qatari girl who married her first cousin when she was 19.
Noor's marriage, which resulted in a son, failed after a year and a half.
"We broke up because of the family dynamics, all the interference," Noor told Reuters.
"It's not just the couple that's involved, it's the whole family," she said, wearing the traditional black head-and-body-covering abaya and declining to give her family name.
"This society has invisible constraints. They're never mentioned, but you have to follow them."
At a recent public debate on intermarriage in Doha, much of the discussion focused on the tensions between cultural practices and the science cautioning against consanguineous marriage - defined as marriage between second cousins or closer.
The discussion was part of the "Doha Debates", a series sponsored by the Qatar Foundation and aired internationally
"I'm living evidence that cousin marriage doesn't work," said Salma, a Sudanese woman living in Qatar who was in the audience and spoke during the question and answer period.
"My parents are both first cousins. My aunt married a first cousin and had two children, both of whom died young.
"I'm now afraid I'll get diabetes, because everyone in my family has it."
Experts believe that high marriage costs force many in the Gulf region to tie the knot with family members.
"It's expensive to marry in the Gulf," Ghazi Tadmouri, assistant director of the Arab Centre for Genomic Studies in Dubai, told Reuters.
"Premarital financial negotiations are much easier when done among family members," he said.
"And it provides a sense of security for the woman. She's not entering into a new world, she's entering a family she knows very well."
In recent years, Gulf countries have introduced mandatory premarital testing for genetic diseases including sickle cell anemia, as well as infectious diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
In Qatar, counseling is required if a potential genetic problem is detected, though the couple are free to marry if they choose.
Public awareness campaigns - particularly one started in Bahrain two decades ago targeting university students in their late teens and early 20s - have been notably successful in reducing rates of genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia in the country.
But some are worried that testing could lead to social stigmatization.
"Gulf society is a very fragile society. These tests might suggest, 'This girl has a problem, don't touch her'," said Omar, an Omani in his 20s who was in the audience.
Experts believe that as expatriates make up the majority of population in the Gulf countries, natives find little option to marry from outside their family boundaries.
"For Gulf Arab nationals, if you don't marry your first cousin, you still are highly likely marry within your clan or tribe," said Alan Bittles, a geneticist at the Centre for Comparative Genomics at Australia's Murdoch University.
"And if you're marrying within your clan or tribe, it's almost certain that you're marrying a relative, which also carries a certain degree of risk."
Qataris, for example, comprise only about 250,000 of the country's 1.7 million people.
"People rely on the family, the clan, for their well-being. (Gulf Arab societies) are tribal societies, and it becomes very political. Particularly if there is a weak central government, clan and tribal affiliations become much more important," said Bittles.
"You've got to weigh the social advantages with the potential genetic disadvantages," he said.
Noor, now 21 and pursuing a degree in international politics at Georgetown University's Doha campus, believe that future generations would deal with the issue differently than she did."I think we're more modern than that now."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net