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Call for Papers: 'Matrilineal Kerala: Investigations across Borders'

In collaboration with: Leiden University Institute for Area Studies, the Netherlands & Mar Chrysostom Chair, Mahatma Gandhi University, India

International conference 'Matrilineal Kerala: Investigations across Borders'

December 15-16, 2023
Kannur University, Kerala, India

Matrilineal system has mainly been a realm of anthropologists and modern historians, while its premodern trajectories are yet to be explored thoroughly. In the context of Kerala, there are a few significant studies, but their focus has been limited to the Nayars. It is widely acknowledged that more than two dozen communities in the region followed matrilineal or matriarchal practices, while some scholars bring the number even up to a hundred. This pervasiveness of the matrilineal culture presents us an interesting conundrum in the ways in which the family, economy, state and society evolved in the region as it had significant impacts on how the people interacted with one another as well as with those who arrived from other parts of the Indian subcontinent or ocean.

The matriarchal system is taken here as an umbrella term to refer to diverse categories of social structures, institutions, practices and ideas associated with importance to mothers and their families. It includes the succession of properties and titles through mothers (usually identified as matriliny), women’s residential patterns at their natal homes after the marriage (matrilocality or matrifocality), and their better access to political, cultural and economic power (matriarchy). In Kerala, diverse elements of this system can be traced historically in different communities while a few groups have cumulated most of these features. The matriarchal culture, nevertheless, cannot be taken as a mirror image of patriarchy or as a total control of women over the family, state or society. It has to be described and analyzed in its own terms as evident in different historical and sociological contexts, and this conference aims to take a few steps in that direction.

While the case of the Nayars has been studied considerably well, they were neither the earliest nor the dominant matrilineal group in Kerala. Many tribal or ethnic communities, who resided in the region before them or emerged along with them, also followed this social system. Even many groups which are otherwise identified as patrilineal and patriarchal, had matrilineal residues in certain crucial aspects of their lives. One telling example is the matrilineal transfer of religious leaderships (such as kattanārs or qāḍīs) in many Christian and Muslim domains. Some of these positions were hereditary and passed through the matrilineal order, from uncle to nephew, sometimes leading to enduring conflicts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in congregations where some preferred patrilineal succession.

Taken the whole social landscape of premodern Kerala together, why did all these communities follow the matriarchal culture, while their neighbors followed patriarchy almost exclusively? The existing scholarly and popular narratives relate the reasons of its origins and survival to the Nayar occupation in the military or militia and their prolonged absence from their homelands, massacres of men in the long-lasted wars between the Chera and Chola dynasties and the consequent scarcity of men. Some of these explanations have already been rejected, but those are also unsatisfactory when we take into account the larger currency of the system across tribal, religious and caste borders who found their livelihood not only from army but also through agricultural, mercantile, skilled and unskilled occupations. Many of these groups and occupations existed in the region before or alongside the emergence of the Nayars. How and why did they all follow the matriarchal system in varying degrees? Was the system a single phenomenon with similar marital, residential and succession practices and worldviews or what are the nuances within and beyond each community? To what extent the system was local or trans-local?

In this conference, we explore these questions on the impacts of matriliny on Kerala society from a long-term perspective, and across the borders of castes, tribes, communities, occupations, places and periods. The event, partially funded by the Dutch Research Council’s Veni Project “Matriarchal Islam: Gendering Sharia in the Indian Ocean world,” will include a focus on Islamic communities, particularly the Mappila Muslims in Malabar, and will incorporate analytical frameworks for connections and comparisons across various communities. In doing so, the conference will underscore the significance of interconnected and comparative perspectives on matriarchal practices within the region and across the wider Indian Ocean world.

Confirmed speakers

  • Gopinath Ravindran (Vice Chancellor, Kannur University)
  • Fathima E.V. (Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, Tirur)
  • Abhilash Malayil (Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady)
  • Lekshmi Chandran (SRM University, Amaravati)
  • Aleena Sebastian (National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)
  • Fathima Fayaz (Indian School, Manama, Bahrain)
  • Mahmood Kooria (Leiden University, the Netherlands)
  • Umar Nizarudeen (Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram)
  • Manaf Kottakkunnummal (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)
  • Muhammad Sirajudin K. (Government Brennen College, Thalassery)
  • Mariyam Mumthaz (University of Hyderabad)

Call for Papers

If you are interested in participating, please send an abstract of 500 words and a short bio of 150 words to mahmoodpana @ gmail.com before December 04, 2023. For the selected papers, the supporting institutions will cover the travel expenses within India and accommodation for two nights in Kannur.

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