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Cousin Couples Rush To Altar To Beat Tajik Marriage Ban

File photo of a wedding in Tajikistan.
File photo of a wedding in Tajikistan.

Alisher, a 25-year-old construction worker from the southern Tajik city of Qurghon-Teppa, abruptly got married in mid-June.

It is not usual to get married in the height of summer in Tajikistan, especially when it coincides with Ramadan -- the holy Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting -- like it does this year. Most Tajiks prefer to throw parties in autumn, when labor migrants have returned with cash they earned in Russia.

But the rush to the altar is on, because on July 1 a controversial law that bans marriages between cousins goes into effect.

"I married my first cousin and we wanted to make it official before the law banning cousin marriages takes effect," said Alisher, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Civil registry offices across Tajikistan say that in recent months they have noticed a rise in the number of applications for marriage licenses, a phenomenon they attribute to people trying to beat the ban on consanguineous unions.

"We are getting unprecedented number of applications from young couples, most of whom are first cousins," an official from the Dushanbe civil registry department told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity.

The law banning marriages between blood relations was adopted in January after years of heated debate in media and parliament amid divided public opinion.

Supporters of the ban argued that children from first cousins run higher risk of birth defects and genetic illnesses.

Those who oppose the ban called for more scientific research to link birth defects to consanguineous marriages.

The Health Ministry said it has registered more than 25,000 disabled children across the country, 30 to 35 percent of them born to consanguineous marriages.

State media and government officials have continued an unofficial campaign to raise awareness about the perceived risks of the marriage between blood relatives.

"We speak to young people about the risks involved in such marriages," says Sherali Rahmatulloev, the head of the Social Protection and Family Affairs Department of the Health Ministry.

"Personally, I have managed to talk some 60 people out of entering consanguineous marriages," Rahmatulloev said.

Not everyone is heeding such advisement, however.

"I just came back from my niece's wedding in northern Asht district. She married her cousin, the son of her aunt," says Manzura Abdurahmonova, a teacher from Dushanbe.

Abdurahmonova says the family went ahead with the wedding "at the most inconvenient time -- during both summer and Ramadan -- just because of the ban coming into effect."

According to official statistics, at least 60 first-cousin marriages took place in the first quarter of 2016, although there are no figures for comparison to previous years.

Authorities suspect the real figure could be higher, though.

"It's not always possible to determine that couples applying for a marriage license are cousins," Rahmatulloev says. "For example, a man from eastern Badakhshon marries his cousin from the southern town of Vahdat. How would authorities guess they were related? It's a big challenge for us."

The rise in adopting Tajik-style last names -- which give the option of using one's father's first name as a surname -- makes it even more complicated to determine people's family ties.

Meanwhile, in Qurghon-Teppa, the newly married Alisher is leaving to Russia for seasonal work. Alisher says he has heard about the possible risks of marrying a cousin but doesn't "worry about it too much."

"Many of my relatives from older generations are married to their cousins," he says."Their children seem to be fine."

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondents Sarvinoz Ruhulloh in Dushanbe and Orzu Karim in Qurghon-Teppa

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.