Demographic Transition, Transformations of Kinship and Marriage, and the Application of Islamic Family Law

University of Fribourg - Salle G130  -  Boulevard de Pérolles 90  -  CH-1700 Fribourg

Conference - 15 / 17 May 2014

In regions where Islamic family law is applied, from  Morocco to India, marriages between cousins constitute from 20 to 60% of unions, despite marked declines in birth rates, which, on the face of it, sharply reduce the number of cousins available for each person to marry. Statistics show that high rates of consanguinity have been maintained even in societies in which fertility has reached or descended below replacement level (e.g., Iran). The demographic transition model postulates a causal link between ‘modernization’ and fertility decline, implying that consanguinity will decrease whereas new patterns of kinship will emerge. ‘Western’ analysts and politicians question whether societies of the Middle East and Northwest Africa, given persistently high rates of consanguinity, are in a position successfully to reform gender asymmetries, overcome sectarian divisions, and, ultimately, ‘rise to democracy’.

The faltering of the ‘Arab Spring’ is likely to reinforce this neo-evolutionist thesis. Already, in Euro-American discourse, cousin marriage is often assimilated to ‘inbreeding’, which purportedly leads to ‘self-encapsulation’, ‘genetic defects’, and ‘terror’. This argument fits in admirably with Huntington’s influential postulate of a ‘conflict of civilisations’. It redounds to immigration policies, conceptions of secularism, and geopolicy, as shown by demands made in Europe to prohibit cousin marriage on public health grounds.

In Muslim contexts, by contrast, close-kin marriage is carefully debated with reference to its genetic implications; still, its broader social relevance is recognised. Marriage ensures affiliation to an often patribiased collective through nasab, a foundational descent process that guarantees the transgenerational continuity of patronymics and legitimacy with afferent rights and duties. Yet, sharp fertility decline, rapid urbanisation, mass migration, gender violence, and recurrent wars threaten this continuity. In the face of such upheavals, reforms of family law related to the status of millions of fatherless children, just as the maternal transmission of citizenship, have seldom succeeded. Outsiders pinpoint ‘forced (cousin) marriage’ and ‘honour crimes’, but tend to oversee systemic, societal violence grounded in the increasing absence or erosion of legitimate nasab. So too is the pivotal articulation of nasab and (cousin) marriage for many Muslim modes of existence poorly understood; this makes it difficult to grasp how primary actors, male and female, cope with and transcend illegitimacy, thus possibly modifying certain rules of the game.

The countries of Southeast Asia where Islam is widely prevalent here offer a striking contrast. Whereas codified Islamic law, in conjunction with customary law, is applied to Muslims in matters of personal status, it remains to determine whether the reduction of fertility rates in recent decades proceeded concomitantly with a decrease in already less frequent kin marriage. Moreover, the patribias observable in other Muslim contexts in the choice of cousin spouses as well as the application of sharia, notably in matters of female inheritance, is, rather, modulated by cognatic, indeed matrifocused practices. Considering these important variations, the conference will seek better to understand how, in changing demographic configurations, nasab differentially determines modes of affiliation to and transformations of kinship-focused collectives in Muslim societies also modelled by confessional, factional, or ethnic distinctions.

The conference will address these issues in comparative and interdisciplinary perspective. Demographic findings will be interpreted from the standpoint of the anthropology of kinship, whereas variations of gendered processes of kinship and marriage will be confronted as they interrelate with regional differences in the application of Muslim personal status law. Particular emphasis will be placed on analysing ‘breaches of nasab’. In many conflict-ridden of societies, it appears that nasab increasingly generates exclusion rather than inclusion. This hiatus is visible in the alarming increase in illegitimacy, manifest in the expanding cohorts of stateless persons, (war) orphans, abandoned children, and unwed mothers. Here again, Southeast Asia stands in contrast to the Muslim lands that stretch from the Atlas to the Indus. This discrepancy warrants detailed reflection.
  • le mercredi 14 mai 2014  de 19h  à 21h
  • le jeudi 15 mai 2014  de 9h  à 21h
  • le vendredi 16 mai 2014  de 9h  à 21h
  • le samedi 17 mai 2014  de 9h  à 22h
  • Édouard Conte (
    Directeur de recherche au CNRS
    Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale
    Collège de France
    52, rue du Cardinal Lemoine
    F-75005 Paris
    Telephone: +41 31 302 31 18,
    Cell phone: +41 79 719 32 45

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