Dec 06

Marrying Relatives in Yazgulom: Public Problem or Private Affair?

DSCN0382Yazgulom is a valley in the Pamirs with a population of 6,000 spread across five villages.  The locals speak Yazgulomi, a language which is different to those of neighbouring valleys. The locals claim it is one of the oldest languages in the world and are proud of their Aryan heritage. Indeed many of the locals are blond haired and blue eyed.  They also claim that their language is close to English because, unlike Tajik, they have the sound th.  Listening to them converse in Yazgulomi it seems the similarities end there!

We had travelled to this remote valley to monitor some seminars on the importance of not marrying relatives.  These seminars brought together a series of formal and informal leaders, including local government officials, teachers, imam-khatibs and mahalla (community) leaders.  All agreed that many relatives- usually cousins- were married to each other.

A number of trends can be drawn from the two days of discussion. With regards to causality a range of factors were mentioned. Firstly, the fact that the valley is remote means that connections with other parts of the country are limited. This means that many people find partners in the valley itself. Given that there are only 6,000 residents and families average over six children, this results in a lot of in-breeding. Secondly, given that the Yazgulomis have their own ethnic identity, traditions and language, many want to marry within their group in order to maintain this. There is a fear that their unique culture could succumb to homogenisation as happened in the neighbouring valley of Vanj, where the Vanji language died out one hundred years ago. Thirdly, some blamed the parents who often pressurise girls into getting married at fifteen or sixteen, often to relatives.  In Tajikistan, when a girl marries she lives with her husband’s family. Therefore marrying a daughter off at a young age relieves a family of a financial burden.

Is this a problem?  Here opinions were divided.  A number of participants argued that incidences of birth defects and health problems had increased because of in-breeding. However, the imam-khatib’s counter-argued that in the eyes of Islam marrying a cousin is acceptable.  Most people seemed to accept that intra-family could cause problems, but few expressed a desire to change their behaviour.

The days’ proceedings spoke to another pertinent issue in international development. Given the entrenchment of societal norms- in this case the normalisation of cousins marrying each other- it is very difficult to change people’s perceptions. Although those organising the seminars certainly considered themselves to be doing good, it is difficult to see how two days of seminars can have had any significant impact upon cultural norms.

The government has recently stepped into the debate and proposed a ban on cousins marrying one another. This follows a number of laws which restricted the number of guests at weddings, outlawed polygamy and set the legal age for marriage at seventeen.  My conversations with people in Yazgulom indicated that many people in Tajikistan resist these attempts by the government to regulate a space that they deem to be private (shakhsi). Indeed in the discussions this term came up time and time again as a means to contest both the government’s policy and the NGO’s project. This resistance extends to actively breaking the law, with many people failing to register marriages, marrying more than one person and some girls marrying before they are aged seventeen. Such deviance indicates that donor projects and government programs in this sphere are failing in their aim to regulate people’s behaviour.