Cultural Differences – Which Culture Has It Right? Read One Woman’s Struggle With the Culture She Was Born In to.

My Parents Wanted Me to Marry My Cousin

My personal struggle against an insular tradition

Zara ZareenFollowJan 31 · 26 min read

Image: Nawalescape on Pixabay

Before I declined the arranged marriage proposal from my first cousin, I almost accepted it. This story is about the almost-acceptance.

It’s about the social pressures which nearly buckled me into a ‘yes’, before I resisted and reclaimed my right to say ‘no’.

It’s about the cultural codes of honour, perceptions of duty, and the deeply entrenched values of allegiance to kin which underlie the custom of cousin-marriage in Pakistan, my country of birth.

Growing up in a conservative Pakistani family in Bristol, United Kingdom, I often struggled with the image of the subservient daughter that my parents projected onto me. Finally, I reached a crisis point at the age of twenty-two, and chose my freedom over my family’s expectations.

The strength to say ‘no’

Almost eighteen months have passed since I said ‘no’ to marrying my cousin. In that time, I’ve found the strength to say ‘no’ to many other things, and my life has changed in ways I never imagined possible.

I’ve left my parental home behind to live independently — taboo for an unmarried woman of my cultural background.¹

I’ve rejected the constraints of a dogmatic religion in which I was involuntarily indoctrinated.

I’ve found a partner of my own choosing, and we’ve established a romantic relationship outside of marriage.

This journey hasn’t been easy.

Nadia Agha, sociological researcher at Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, Pakistan, has, along with Zamir Ahmed, summarised a few elements of the traditionalist value system to which my parents subscribe. It’s a culture which assumes that ‘women’s sexuality is associated with men’s honour’, that men therefore ‘have an inherent right to control women and discipline their life’, and that ‘a woman’s existence is a commodity owned by her father before her marriage and her husband after her marriage.’²

Sure enough, last month, when I called my parents and told them that I’m in a relationship, this expression of sexual agency was too much for my father to bear. In response, he branded me a shameless woman with no modesty or morals, claimed that my ongoing disobedience must be symptomatic of a psychological breakdown, and dismissed my desire for autonomy as the equivalent of smearing shit on his face.

“You don’t care how badly you disgrace us in front of the community. You don’t care if people spit on our faces in disgust. Would any decent woman ever do the things you’ve done?”

Over the speakerphone, I heard my mother breaking into sobs. “Nobody has ever hurt us as much as you’ve hurt us. It makes no difference to you whether we live or die.”

“What kind of daughter are you to us anyway?” were my father’s last words before the line went dead.

I foresaw that vitriolic response. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not grieving. I’ve cried in my partner’s arms, unable to articulate what I’m aching for. I’ve had dreams in which my father is hugging me again. I wasn’t expecting my family to approve — but I felt I had to try, at least once, to give them the chance to accept my decisions.

They’re my parents, after all. They raised me, clothed me, fed me. And in their way, they loved me. Perhaps somewhere deep down, I allowed myself the childish hope that their reaction would pleasantly surprise me. Instead, it was an explicit culmination of the implicit messages I’d grown up receiving all my life.

The concept of honour

Jasvinder Sanghera co-founded Karma Nirvana, a national UK-based project that supports both men and women affected by honour-based crimes and forced marriages. Sanghera’s family are Indian-Sikh. Mine are Pakistani-Muslim. However, like many South Asian families, their beliefs about honour and how it is upheld have much in common.

‘Honour pertains to a learnt, complex set of rules an individual follows in order to protect the family reputation and keep his/her position in the community… Males can lose honour and be shamed by failure to control women in their network.’ ³

The punishment for bringing dishonour on one’s family can be emotional abuse, physical abuse, family disownment and in some cases even murder.⁴

In her book Daughters of Shame, Sanghera clarifies:

‘Trying to explain the concept of honour is one of the hardest things… Asian people are swaddled in it from the moment they are born. It’s as though they absorb it along with their mother’s milk. Honour is the cornerstone of the Asian community and since the beginning of time it’s been the job of girls and women to keep it polished. And that’s really hard because so many things can tarnish it, including any signs that a girl is getting westernised… That’s what Asian families fight so hard against.’ ⁵

The list of social taboos is long. Having a boyfriend, being seen talking to boys, or having male friends; using social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat; wearing western clothes; wanting to integrate — all of these actions and many more can be interpreted as dishonouring one’s family.⁶

But how did cousin-marriage come to be seen as an expression of upholding honour by my family?

What motivates cousin-marriage?

Dr Katharine Charsley, Reader of Sociology at the University of Bristol, has remarked ‘on the marked increase over time in numbers of first cousin marriage amongst British Pakistanis.’⁷ Her study conducted among Pakistanis in Bristol found that they were ‘often wary of matches [even] with other British Pakistanis for fear that they will have been contaminated by what they view as the amoral climate of the West.’⁸ In contrast, there is a perceived ‘security and trust inherent in close kin marriage’⁹ since the suitor, being a relative, is previously known to the family, and any ‘undesirable’ traits such as lack of religiosity are therefore more difficult to conceal.

In addition, familial duty drives parents to offer their own children to their siblings’ children as marriage partners. Alison Shaw, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oxford, elucidates:

“Marriages of your children to the children of siblings is an important symbol of respectability, a public statement that even families separated by continents recognize their mutual obligations.” ¹⁰

Similarly, as explained by Roger Ballard, Consultant Anthropologist and Director of the Centre for Applied South Asian Studies:

‘[Among many British Pakistanis] the marriage of cousins is not only permitted, but it is preferred: siblings have the right of first refusal with respect to the marriages of each other’s children […] Parents who reject these obligations are likely to be charged with having become so anglicised that they have forgotten their most fundamental duties towards their kin.’ ¹¹

When my parents tried to push me to consent to my cousin’s proposal, they wholeheartedly believed they were acting in my best interests — and theirs. They were keeping me on the straight and narrow — an honourable, traditional path. I would go from belonging to my father to belonging to another man he had appointed — a trusted family member in this case. There would be no dating, no ‘Westernized nonsense.’ By keeping things in the family, they hoped to protect me from outside unscrupulous influence, and ensure that I ended up with a man they deemed respectable.

‘Illicit’ sexual behaviour and parental shame

After my refusal to submit to this tradition, a chasm opened between me and my parents, and it has continued to widen ever since. My wish to determine the nature of my own relationships makes no sense to them. In their eyes, individualism is selfishness. Moreover, premarital relations are immoral, cohabiting out of wedlock is degeneracy, and my objections to cousin-marriage are evidence of being brainwashed by the West.

Still, had I declined to marry my cousin, but consented to remain the single, virginal, sole property of my father, my parents — although ashamed of my assertiveness and unwillingness to acquiesce to their demands — might have been able to tolerate me. However, as Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country, expounds, upholding family honour also involves strict regulation of women’s sexual behaviour:

“A sense of collective honour among kin is reflected most dramatically in preventing or punishing any illicit sexual behaviour by the kinship group’s women.” ¹²

In that context, the fact that I’ve chosen a partner of my own — and on top of that, refused to be rushed into marrying him as a result of religious pressure to appear ‘virtuous’ — is interpreted by my parents as dishonouring and disrespecting them in the extreme.

It took many years for me to recognise the closed-minded and controlling nature of environment I grew up in. For the longest time, I just accepted it. As a child, I even thought the problem was me.

In some ways, I’m glad my parents tried to pressure me into something as restrictive and illiberal as marrying my own cousin. It was because of this that things finally reached breaking point… and I woke up and decided that they needed to change.

Childhood memories: silence, slaps, and threats of strangling

My mother and father were brought up in Hyderabad, Sindh, in the southern region of Pakistan. They share the same ethnicity, religion, and language, but not the same ancestry. However, much like cousin-marriages, their marriage was entirely arranged by their own parents on the basis that their families knew each other.

On the other hand, I grew up in Bristol, England. I was a year old when my parents migrated from Pakistan to Britain, and twenty-two when my father informed me of a proposal on behalf of a cousin living in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Image: ASSY on Pixabay (edited by author using Lunapic)

I was stunned, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. It was the first time in my life I’d heard my father hint at a context in which he sanctioned my association with a man.

Romantic feelings, intermingling with the opposite sex — such things had always been taboo in our household. Growing up, I was prohibited from playing with my neighbours because they were boys. (I resigned myself to watching them, and my brother, through the window instead.) If there was a programme on TV in which two people happened to kiss, my father would change the channel until the scene was over. At age nine, I wrote a childish note about a crush I had in primary school — not meant for anyone’s eyes but my own. Strike one. When my dad found it, he warned me: “You knowthis is wrong” and gave me the silent treatment for several excruciating days until I promised never to do ‘it’ again.

But what was ‘it?’ ‘It’ remained unspecified. Write about my crush? Have a crush in the first place? Feel anything at all for a boy? I was so desperately relieved when my dad started speaking to me again — so grateful that the sudden and complete withdrawal of his affection was over — that I didn’t care to clarify exactly what had upset him.

I concluded simply that my emotions were wrong. Attraction was shameful, and had to be suppressed.

And so I got better at pretending. Meanwhile, my parents got better at enforcing. In secondary school, they pulled me out of sex education. My mother told the teacher who phoned to question their decision that I lacked the emotional maturity to cope with such material.

At age thirteen, I slipped up again and received a phone call from a boy. Strike two. I was about to learn how associating with the opposite sex could do worse than provoke the withdrawal of my parents’ love. It also harboured the potential to enrage them.

My father had just arrived home from work when my mother informed him about the phone call. His posture hardened; his expression transformed. He flung first his laptop onto the sofa, then its charger, and then he threatened: “I’ll slap you so hard I’ll make your head spin round.” In the days that followed, while he monitored my confiscated phone to see if I’d get any more calls, I had my first experience of literally shaking with visceral fear.

Whatever I was guilty of — it was costing me too much. To soothe my screaming conscience and atone for my wrongdoings, I decided to adopt the headscarf. (My father had instructed me to wear it to secondary school, but up until then, I’d only been feigning wearing it — leaving the house with it on, before sneakily taking it off once I got to the bus stop).

I would be a good Muslim girl, I reprimanded myself. I would repress my sinful feelings. I would get my parents to love me again.

And for a while, I managed it. In fact, I managed it so well that one of my mother’s friends commented: “She’s so good despite being raised in England.”

“We are strict with our children. We keep them under control,” my mother responded dryly.

Then one summer at sixteen, I fell short of the mark once more. Naively, I got involved in a teenage relationship and my mother witnessed the youth in question kissing me on the cheek. Strike three. Behind closed doors, she slapped me multiple times, commanding me to bow before God for forgiveness. I prostrated in tears, believing I deserved every slap. She warned me: “Your father would strangle you to death if he knew what you’ve done.”

Why the proposal shocked me

Enough of this over the years, and you learn to erase every trace of sexuality in front of your family. You learn that Daddy does not like it when you like boys. So when, in the summer of 2017, my father suddenly began talking about marrying me to a man, it took me utterly by surprise.

Initially, my dad was pleased to see me respond to the proposal so hesitantly — he interpreted it as virginal shyness. In actuality, my pause had much less to do with being coy than with my shock at the subject he was suddenly raising.

In an episode of Christiane Amanpour’s documentary series Sex and Love Around The World ¹³, a young woman from India perfectly articulated the dichotomy underpinning the culture of arranged marriage:

“When you’re a child you’re not allowed to talk to a boy — until your parents deem you fit to get married. So [you’re told] ‘don’t talk to boys, don’t talk to boys, don’t talk to boys… Now fuck this one, and have babies.’ ”

To make matters even more perplexing, this “boy” in question, of course, was my cousin.

Cousin-marriage in context

In their review of published literature on the reproductive consequences of intermarriage, Dr Olubunmi Oniya et al. define consanguinity as

‘the close union, sexual relationship or marriage between persons who have common biological ancestors, usually up to about 2nd cousins.’ ¹⁴

Although Western cultures which do not practice consanguinity can be prone to regarding intermarriage with ‘salacious interest’¹⁵ as well as with ‘suspicion and distaste’¹⁶, it is important to place this kind of moral stance in context as a relatively recent development.

In Britain, first cousin marriages continue to be permitted under civil law. Throughout history, ‘consanguineous unions were frequently reported within the ruling classes and land-owning families of Western societies.’¹⁷ Charles Darwin himself, for example, was married to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, and comprehensive investigations into the ramifications of human inbreeding only began in the late 1940s.¹⁸

Nevertheless, Oniya et al.’s review, which was published in January 2019, suggests that at present:

‘‘Western countries tend to have low rates of consaguinity, apart from within local immigrant populations (such as the Pakistani Muslim community in the Northwest of England)¹⁹… The highest rates [of consanguinity] are seen in countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.’ ²⁰

Consanguineous unions predate Islam (the Ancient Egyptians of the Ptolemy period, 305 BC, practiced half sibling marriages²¹), and there is no specific Qur’anic passage which endorses consanguinity²². However, I think that gender segregation encouraged by religion may bear at least some relation to the high incidence of cousin marriage in the above locales with predominantly Muslim populations.

The Prophet Muhammad warned against an unrelated man and woman being alone together lest they invite the company of Satan.²³ In the absence of an extended courting period in which a prospective couple can freely determine their compatibility before marrying, intermarriage between trusted close relatives can be seen as a way of mitigating the risk involved in selecting suitable spouses. My own father stated his aversion to the idea of ‘giving’ me to a stranger or allowing me to date — but in attempting to marry me to my cousin, he believed he was picking the ‘safe’ option. He even suggested that if I experienced marital problems, then as my husband’s uncle he would have the authority to intervene and reprimand him.

The ‘safety’ attributed to the cousin-suitor is further described by Katharine Charsley:

‘[Among the British-Pakistani community, transnational marriages between kin] can be seen as a way of avoiding the perceived dangers of selecting a spouse raised in the West, who may be likely to neglect religious knowledge or practice, or to exhibit a lack of commitment to marriage and the family, while also strengthening connections between kin divided by migration.’ ²⁴

Dr Rafat Hussain’s 1999 study of the sociocultural determinants of intermarriage included testimonies suggesting that ‘[marital] conflicts [between consanguineous couples] can lead to the souring of existing family relationships.’²⁵ Despite this, Oniya et al. confirm that in general, the pursuit of marital stability continues to motivate families arranging intermarriages:

‘As husband and wife are related, it is thought that the bride would be better treated, [and enjoy] better relationships with her in-laws as the bride is also their relative.’ ²⁶

A sense of claustrophobia

In my own case, however, I was not convinced. In fact, I was overwhelmed by claustrophobia. 7.5 billion people in the world and the one I was supposed to marry was my cousin? The world seemed suffocatingly small.

My only conscious memories of my cousin consisted of brief meetings on family holidays; for the most part, we’d grown up continents apart. Besides, my home life had taught me that being members of the same ‘family’ on paper could not guarantee mutual understanding. By the time the proposal came, I was already a closeted atheist, torn between my parents’ religious and cultural expectations and my desperate desire to make my own life choices.

My parents subscribed to the belief that unmarried women do not move out of their parental homes to live independently, otherwise they bring dishonour and misery on their families. Maybe in the right circumstances, marriage might even have seemed to me like a welcome escape ticket out of their home — but here it seemed obvious that wedding my cousin would only barricade me right back into another restrictive prison. I wanted freedom, and I wasn’t going to get it by marrying into my own conservative family!

When I recovered from my initial shock, I said (at least at first) no. No, no, no.

Besides, there was another problem — and my father was already aware of it. Certain members of my dad’s extended family suffer from congenital mutism. They also happen to be the offspring of intermarriages.

Genetic implications of cousin-marriage

Oniya et al. have cited evidence to suggest that:

‘the rate of congenital malformations among the children of consanguineous marriages is approximately 2.5 times higher than among the offspring of unrelated parents.’ ²⁷

In 2006, Alan Bittles was the World Health Organization’s adviser on medical genetic services in developing countries. Now Research Leader in the Centre for Comparative Genomics at Murdoch University, he has published numerous research papers on consanguinity and its genetic implications. He writes that:

‘even when control is introduced for a wide range of sociodemographic variables, consanguinity remains a significant factor in determining early mortality.’ ²⁸

In addition to this:

multiple deaths have been reported in a proportion of consanguineous families from developing countries and in migrant communities resident in developed countries, the effect being proportional to the level of parental genetic relatedness.’ ²⁹

And if this weren’t enough:

‘Both mild and severe mental retardation likewise tends to be increased in frequency. In the UK Pakistani population, elevated rates of cerebral palsy have been reported in consanguineous progeny, with an autosomal recessive gene identified in several consanguineous families with multiple affected offspring.’ ³⁰

My parents might not have read Bittles’ paper on consanguinity and its relevance to clinical genetics, but it’s inaccurate to say they were wholly unaware of these issues. My dad has a PhD in Computer Science; my mother qualified as a medical doctor in Pakistan. They are by no means uneducated people.

When I questioned my father about his stance on the genetic implications of cousin marriage, his rebuttals failed to reassure me: “The risk of genetic disease only increases after multiple consecutive generations of intermarrying. Your mother and I aren’t related… So you’ll be fine.”

In my father’s defence, Bittles has acknowledged that ‘in Western medicine, an adverse pregnancy outcome in a couple known to be biological relatives has often been uncritically ascribed to the adverse effects of inbreeding.’³² He argues that many genetic disorders attributed to marrying within the family are actually the outcome of a much broader phenomenon. The precise nature of this phenomenon, however, dismantles rather than supports my father’s stance on the issue.

Instead of claiming that specific genetic malformations are a direct result of consaguineous procreation, Bittles suggests that they may also be caused more generally by ongoing intermarriage within one particular community, such as one’s own ethnicity, or tribe:

‘In most Middle Eastern and North African populations, and in India and Pakistan, marriage is not simply arranged within the family, but is contracted within caste, tribal, or clan boundaries….These groupings have long and apparently unbroken histories of strict intra‐community marriage dating back many centuries, and in effect, they have evolved separate and unique gene pools. Thus, many of the genetic disorders that have been described are community‐specific.’ ³³

Therefore, following a generational pattern of strictly limiting marriage candidates to a pre-defined, restricted social group could have genetic implications — even if the marriages thus enacted aren’t necessarily consanguineous. Once again, as Bittles has confirmed:

‘Irrespective of consanguineous marriage, sub-division of a population into multiple endogamous sub-communities predictably results in greater intra-community genetic homogeneity and the increased expression of specific recessive disease genes.’ ³⁴

As concerning as all this was, if it had just been the genetic implications of intermarriage that were bothering me, I could have made sure my cousin and I got genetic screening before we were married. But what truly disturbed me ran much deeper than that.

It was this stiflingly limiting idea that I had to pursue my future partner within strict ethnic, racial, religious — and in my case, familial — limits. These limitations were not simply coincidental, arising out of accessibility, convenience or preference, but they were rules being enforced with sectarian bigotry. I’d often heard my father criticising Sindhi men who chose to marry Urdu-speaking Muhajir women outside of their ethnicity, accusing them of squandering their cultural heritage for lust. Even if we put the genetic implications of first-cousin, or even more broadly endogamous unions, aside, there was something socially problematic about the tribalistic mentality my father was promoting.

Keeping it in the family: cousin-marriage as control

Concluding her study of community reasons for preferring consanguineous marriages, Dr Rafat Hussain advised:

‘Polarization of society along ethnic lines is very likely to make communities more inward-looking. Given the widespread prevalence of consanguineous marriage, there is a need to study not only the health implications of such unions, but also to understand the sociological underpinnings of marriage choice.’ ³⁵

Unfortunately, the fact that consanguineous marriage is such an inward-looking marriage choice is precisely the reason that it appealed to my parents. In his book If You Had Controlling Parents, family therapist Dan Neuharth explains how parental rigidity and overcontrol are commonly motivated by fear of external threat:

‘Control and trust are diametrically opposed and inextricably linked. We control to the extent that we mistrust the world. When we trust the world, we can feel safe enough to let go of much of our need to trust. Controlling parents, by and large, do not trust. Parental overcontrol is nearly always a generations-old cycle.’ ³⁶

Ultimately, my parents urged me to enter into consanguineous marriage for the same reason that they dictated how I dressed well into adulthood. When I cut my hair without his permission, my dad raged — too much bodily autonomy was dangerous! (“You want to be a boy now? What’s next? Wearing shorts because boys do?!” he demanded when I went against his command. “I’m the man of this house and I get to say what happens to my family, even to the hair on your head!”)

A similar terror motivated my mother when she insisted that I take off my underwear and show her my used sanitary towel to prove that I wasn’t faking my period to enjoy exemption from prayers. (In Islam, the five daily prayers are compulsory, but the prayers of a menstruating woman are considered invalid, and so she is excused from performing them³⁷.)

The same defensive instinct provoked my dad’s fury when I started questioning religion: “If we’d known that education would taint you like this, we’d never have allowed you to go to university.”

In families like mine, restrictions placed on a daughter’s behaviour in the name of ‘honour’ and religious observance all too often stem from parents’ deep-rooted mistrust of their environment. It is not uncommon for South Asian families to conceive of the Western social order as unstable:

‘The stereotype … [of the West] is of remote relationships with little concept of family solidarity. Elders appear to command little love or respect and are sent into homes instead of being looked after by the younger generation. Sexual licence is thought to be rife and there is hardly any regard for the institution of marriage. Parents seemingly divorce and remarry without any consideration for their offspring, who may have to go into care. This kind of behaviour is viewed as outrageous by Asian standards; a culture not worthy of emulation.’ ³⁸

From such a standpoint, if a daughter begins to show signs of Westernization, arranging her marriage can be a method of reducing her exposure to a dangerously licentious environment, thereby preventing unwanted behaviours. As a teenager, I remember being confronted by my mother when she suspected me of talking to boys: “Do you have some kind of sexual problem? Should I tell your father to stop your education, and get you married to resolve it?” The implication was that talking to boys was by nature a sexual act, regardless of the actual content of the conversation, and that my mother would rather sequester me in marriage than run the risk of me fornicating.

As Afiya Shehrbano Zia of the Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto, has elaborated:

‘Marrying women off becomes a method of control over their “wandering ideas.” Marriage is not just a transactional arrangement between families … but often, women are married off to control their minds and bodies before they can become sexually aware or active. This is often why girls are married off early, as children or adolescents… The possibility of sexual transgression on the part of women, before or after marriage, is a constant source of anxiety for men and their families.’ ³⁹

In my case, my parents wanting me to marry my cousin was the ultimate preventative measure against wandering ideas. The permanence of marriage would seal the direction of my life. Moreover, marrying me to a trusted relative who was known to be religious would offer the greatest security, since ‘[in Pakistani culture] the social risks of marriage are perceived to be greater in marriages arranged outside the family than within.’⁴⁰ Arranging my marriage within the family was my parents’ way of safeguarding my mind and body to the greatest possible degree.

They found nothing questionable about this. They were fulfilling their responsibilities. They were protecting me from the outside world. In their eyes, any potential genetic issues associated with marrying my paternal uncle’s son were far less significant than the perils of irreligious Western influence which they were desperately trying to mitigate.

Emotional blackmail: my experience

“Think about it,” said my father, the first time I refused. “Think about it.”

I tried my mother instead. “I don’t want to marry. I don’t want to marry anyone — let alone my cousin!”

What happened next startled me. Without warning, she began to cry.

“You’ll be a burden on your father. Do you realise what you’re doing? Your uncle will feel insulted that you refused his son, and he’ll stop speaking to your father because of you.”

Those first few sentences left me speechless. I was aware that family heads can feel insulted if marriage proposals made on behalf of their children are refused⁴¹, but my mother’s unwillingness to defend my choice tore into me like a betrayal. Suddenly, my self-esteem plummeted. I felt like a sacrificial goat.

“Your father will be lonely in his old age,” she continued. “He’s already alone in this country, isolated from his siblings. Do you want to cause him more misery? Do you?”

At this point, I admit — I faltered.

When you’re taught from birth that the honour and happiness of your family must always override any individual ‘selfish’ need or desire, I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the psychological pressure that breeds. Dr Rafat Hussain touches on the despondency prevalent among many women of my ethnic background:

‘It is not surprising that women develop a sense of helplessness or are resigned to accepting what they perceive is the hand of fate […] The fact that women do not assert their rights has to do with lifelong conditioning about upholding their natal family’s honour.’ ⁴²

This lifelong conditioning to uphold family honour often takes the form of emotional blackmail, an insidious and yet extremely powerful form of manipulation. As relationship and family therapist Susan Forward explains:

‘Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities[…] They ensure that we will feel afraid to cross them, obligated to give them their way and terribly guilty if we don’t.’ ⁴³

And indeed, in my case, an overwhelming sense of guilt and obligation ripped through my guts as my parents continued their pressurising.

It was the way my father started one sentence with:

“I’m not like those illiterate village men. I’m not going to force you…”

and ended another with:

“…I never thought I’d have to beg my child to do something?”

It was the fluctuation in his tone — sometimes:

“Don’t you think I love you? Don’t you think I know what’s best for you?”

— and later: “Why don’t you say it? Just say yes!

He had brought me up. He’d sacrificed for me. And in return, he implied, I was emasculating him.

“Do whatever you want, then. Fine. Let people say I have no control over my own daughter.”

And so, I confess… I wavered. I considered giving in again — the way I had worn hijab to please my father in childhood, or bowed before God to please my mother as a teenager. I felt indebted to something beyond myself.

‘[Emotional] blackmailer’s comments and behaviour keep us feeling off-balanced, ashamed and guilt-ridden… We lose confidence in our own effectiveness. Our sense of self-worth erodes. Perhaps worst of all, every time we capitulate to emotional blackmail, we lose contact with our integrity, the inner compass that helps us determine what our values and behaviour should be.’ ⁴⁴

Was I really a burden on my parents? Was I being selfish by refusing to marry my cousin? They raised me in childhood, so did I owe them my adulthood?

I was losing contact with my own integrity, all right. I felt like I was being eaten alive.

The courage to refuse

So how did I finally fight my way out of it?

Personally, I believe my ability to say no was greatly strengthened by the journey away from religion I was taking at the time. By backing me into ‘cousin-marriage corner’, my parents forced me into crisis-mode. I saw the trajectory my life would take if I continued submitting to principles I didn’t believe in. I realized how urgently I needed to resist. It was time — not only to come out of atheist closet, but to shake my fist in the face of every other enforced tradition that had for so long demanded my unquestioning obedience.

All of my life, I had followed my parents’ rules. From a young age, I’d been brought up to believe that the purpose of my life was to please God, and part of pleasing God was pleasing my parents. If, in my ingratitude, I denied the existence of God or arrogantly flouted His edicts, I’d be condemned to burn eternally in hell after death (where I’d be forced, among other things, to eat thorns⁴⁴ and pus⁴⁵, to drink water so scalding that it caused internal damage⁴⁶, and to wear shoes made of fire so hot that my brain would boil.⁴⁷)

Most children don’t consider this a desirable fate. Neither do they desire the withdrawal of love from their parents. So throughout my childhood and much of my teens, I earnestly attempted prayer. I rose at dawn to join in with the rituals of fasting. I suppressed my questions, and at least in front of my parents, I did my best to suppress my sexuality. I covered my hair at my father’s command. Well into adulthood, my mother monitored the messages on my phone to ensure I was not being poisoned by the outside secular world, and I did not leave the house to socialise without permission.

Then, around my twenty-second birthday, despite feelings of immense discomfort, I sneaked to a documentary screening about ex-Muslims. I had been drawn to it for reasons I couldn’t quite explain, but afterwards, I wept there because a part of me had finally recognised itself. About a month after the screening, a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion found its way onto my bookshelf, with the spine turned towards the wall so that my parents wouldn’t see the title. It was a book I had been enticed by, and simultaneously afraid of, for a very long time. I knew that if I agreed with any of its contents, my world would be shattered forever. It was not the last of its kind that I would be reading.

Meanwhile, I was working as an English teacher in a secondary school. Day after day, I stood in front of teenagers at the beginning of their journeys of self-discovery, encouraging them to try new things, to step outside of their comfort zones, and to think critically when engaging with the world around them. Every time I did so, there was a part of me that felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. Even as I said the words, for the sake of my family’s happiness I was still pretending to follow a religion which I was becoming more and more certain I had ceased to believe in. What kind of role model — what kind of advocate for free thinking — was I?

It was around this period in my life that the proposal from my cousin came. Internally I had already said no to God, the greatest authoritarian of all. In some ways, saying no to my parents was more difficult because of my ongoing emotional attachment to them, but breaking the shackles of doctrine made it much easier to stand up for myself than it might otherwise have been. Instinctual self-preservation finally surpassed the guilt. With the prospect of cousin-marriage looming on the horizon, my family life had become so confining, I understood that my only option was to fight my way out of it. I knew I could no longer yield to my parents’ insular way of life.

In the end, I decided that although I did not blame my parents for their world views, I could no longer share them, or accept their limitations. I began to make plans to run away.

The importance of a support network

This part of my life proved to be the most important transitional period I have experienced so far. During this time, I was extremely fortunate to have access to counselling through my employer. In fact, having a range of people with whom I could talk and explore my options made an immeasurable difference to my mental health. I wept in the office of more than one counsellor. I had a friend who encouraged me to question my thought process when I was stuck in illogical cycles of guilt, and half-contemplating giving into my parents’ demands. This friend (herself a Muslim, and to whom I believe I owe my life in some ways) yelled at me with absolute conviction, over the phone: “Don’t do it, Zara! DON’T SAY YES!”

I called Karma Nirvana’s helpline for victims of honour-based abuse, and that played a fundamental role in helping me realise that although I had normalised the expectations my family were forcing on me, in reality these expectations were unhealthy and unfair.

I had non-judgemental support and acceptance from a lecturer, from an ex-teacher, from a Muslim Chaplain and from work colleagues who encouraged me to find the inner strength and emotional resilience to make the decision that was best for me. I know I was extremely lucky to have access to as many good listeners as I did.

I wrote a letter to my parents explaining my decision to leave my home and my religion behind, and one morning, in the early hours while they were sleeping, I escaped to begin my new life.

‘Voicing my truth’

Dan Neuharth has suggested that:

‘Growing up controlled means having your speech, feelings, and thoughts stifled… Speaking up about a past or ongoing control helps some people balance out a childhood of speech control […] The purpose is to voice your truth.’ ⁴⁸

I wanted to share my story because I would like to be able to offer hope to others who are faced with similar difficult situations and choices, and need safe, accepting spaces in which to explore their own paths towards happiness.

Having left the oppressive elements of my religion and culture behind, I now derive meaning from other sources in life, and I know I will derive a great deal of meaning from providing comfort and support to others who are in the same situation that I was once in.

There was a time when I believed that I had no power to change my future, and no strength to resist the direction that my family envisioned for me — but I am so so grateful that I did. So if you have anything at all to say about this please contact the author.