by Duman Bahrami-Rad (Simon Fraser University)
Why is it so common for Muslims to marry their cousins (more than 30% of all marriages in the Middle East)? Why, despite explicit injunctions in the Quran to include women in inheritance, do women in the Middle East generally face unequal gender relations, and their labour force participation remain the lowest in the world (less than 20%)?
This study presents a theory, supported by empirical evidence, concerning the historical origins of such marriage and gender norms. It argues that in patrilineal societies that nevertheless mandate female inheritance, cousin marriage becomes a way to preserve property in the male line and prevent fragmentation of land.
In these societies, female inheritance also leads to the seclusion and veiling of women as well as restrictions on their sexual freedom in order to encourage cousin marriages and avoid out-of-wedlock children as potential heirs. The incompatibility of such restrictions with female participation in agriculture has further influenced the historical gender division of labour.
Analyses of data on pre-industrial societies, Italian provinces, and women in Indonesia show that female inheritance, consistent with these hypotheses, is associated with lower female labour participation, greater stress on female virginity before marriage and higher rates of endogamy, consanguinity and arranged marriages.
The study also uses the recent reform of inheritance regulations in India – which greatly enhanced Indian women’s right to inherit property – to provide further evidence of the causal impact of female inheritance. The analysis shows that among women affected by the reform, the rate of cousin marriage is significantly higher, and that of premarital sex significantly lower.
The implications of these findings are important. It is believed that cousin marriage helps create and maintain kinship groups such as tribes and clans, which impair the development of an individualistic social psychology, undermine social trust, large-scale cooperation and democratic institutions, and encourage corruption and conflict.
This study contributes to this literature by highlighting a historical origin of clannish social organisation. It also sheds light on the origins of gender inequality as both a human rights issues and a development issue.