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The origin of the matrilineal system has long been a subject of debate within academia, with social anthropologists, philosophers, archaeologists, feminists, and linguists staking claims on its roots in prehistoric communities. Moving beyond an obsession with the search for origins, this talk explores certain historical matrilineal communities along the Indian Ocean littoral, where millions have adhered to this system for centuries. It served as a practical means to engage in Indian Ocean trade: men could voyage as traders, sailors, and itinerants, while women, holding property, controlled households and broader social spheres. This economic and social stability empowered them in economic and personal choices, allowing for greater freedom within and beyond marriages. While the matrilineal system has waned among Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist communities, it persists among Muslims from Southeast Asia to Southeast Africa. The matrilineal-maritime continuum not only connected millions of them but also raised questions about the Islamic jurisprudential tradition. This talk unravels its workings in familial, communal, and economic life among coastal matrilineal communities between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries—before many practices were challenged by the colonial states, patriarchal modernities, and religious reformisms. It investigates how this praxis benefited the oceanic mercantile system and contributed to the dispersal of Islam, challenging the interpretation of its domains as strictly patriarchal and patrilineal.
Mahmood Kooria teaches at the Department of History, University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and holds research positions at Leiden University (the Netherlands) and the University of Bergen (Norway). Earlier, he was an Assistant Professor of History at Ashoka University (India), Visiting Professor at the Department of History, National Islamic University Jakarta (Indonesia), and a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), the African Studies Centre Leiden (ASCL), and the Dutch Institute in Morocco (NIMAR). His research specializations are the premodern Indian Ocean world, Afro-Asian connections, matrilineal Muslims, and Islamic legal history. He has authored Islamic Law in Circulation: Shafi`i Texts across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (Cambridge University Press), and co-edited Malabar in the Indian Ocean World: Cosmopolitanism in a Maritime Historical Region (Oxford University Press) and Islamic Law in the Indian Ocean: Texts, Ideas, and Practices (Routledge).