Veni grant for Mahmood Kooriadathodi: Can Islam be Matriarchal?

Fieldwork, picture by Mahmood Kooriadathodi

One of the major stereotypes about Islam is that it is very male-dominant and women-oppressive, but is Islam really that patriarchal? Mahmood Kooriadathodi has been awarded a 250.000 euros Veni grant for his project ‘Matriarchal Islam: Gendering Sharia in the Indian Ocean World’.

Mahmood Kooriadathodi

Stereotypes from a Middle Eastern perspective

‘Generally, one of the major stereotypes about Islam is that it is very male-dominant and women-oppressive. Those stereotypes come from the backgrounds of the researchers themselves and/or from a Middle Eastern perspective’, Kooria says. ‘Some societies around the Indian Ocean provide a different perspective in which women are much stronger and powerful. Both Islam and maritime culture enabled them to advance a peculiar matriarchal culture despite several attacks from internal and external powers. In some of these communities, men do not get even a single share from the inheritance and traditional properties. All these have been interpreted and made sense in terms of Sharia. Those aspects have been neglected in the existing literature. Some scholars have studied them, yet a connected and comparative perspective and a negotiation with Sharia are missing. The Indian Ocean and Islam are two unifying factors and these trans-regional and religio-historical dimensions are fascinating for me.’

How do matriarchal Muslims engage with the Sharia?

Kooria will study how the matriarchal Muslims engage with the Sharia that is generally perceived as patriarchal and male chauvinist. He will explore how and why they resolved the perceived contradictions through legal reformulations of the matriarchal system within Islamic frameworks, with vocabularies borrowed from and lent to an Asian-African-Arab nexus, instead of the Sharia being an exclusive import from Arabia. ‘I will focus on the interpretative mechanisms of the matriarchal jurists, especially of female jurists, in a comparative and connected framework. Thanks to a grant from the InterAsia Program of the Social Science Research Council (New York), I have been conducting some pilot research among these communities’, he says.

His main focus is on the matriarchal Muslim women scholars, jurists, mystics and religious leaders. ‘I will start my research in the historical archives, manuscript collections and libraries, both public and private’, Kooria explains. ‘But many of those records are silent on the women or miss out the larger context. I fill those gaps through ethnographic research. I try to understand the documents and their contexts, the continuities and ruptures, through ethnographic research, through participant observations, deep hanging out, and by interviewing a lot of women scholars, jurists and mystics. This combination of historical and anthropological methods has been super-fascinating, and I enjoy every bit of it.’

Fieldwork, picture by Mahmood Kooriadathodi

An online collection of documentaries, images and videos

Aside from publishing a study along with peer-reviewed articles, Kooria also aims to produce a few short documentaries and one full length documentary. Kooria: ‘I have already started to record for this, but I would work more in the coming years with additional interviews and footages. I am also preparing a website to catalogue and store all the available materials on the matriarchal Muslims and their engagements with the Sharia. The short documentaries that I make, as well as several other images and videos, also would be available on this website called matriarchalislam.com. I am also organising an international conference on this topic at Ashoka University in India later this month.’

‘The process almost like a suspense thriller’

Kooria says he is very delighted that he received the grant and describes the selection process: ‘It was nail biting with a lot of self-doubt and high confidence changing goalposts time to time. One reviewer was very negative while the other reviewer was extremely positive. I really enjoyed the discussions in the interview, but the last questions were very tricky and unexpected. It made the process almost like a suspense thriller’. He is extremely thankful to Tom Hoogervorst, David Kloos, Nira Wickramasinghe, and Abhishek Avtans, who helped him throughout the process.

NWO Veni

In total, 25 young Leiden researchers received a Veni grant. Every year, the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), awards Veni grants to young researchers who recently obtained their doctoral degree. They receive a maximum of 250.000 euros for innovational research projects. The Veni grants are, together with the Vidi and Vici grants, part of the NWO’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme.

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