This project started out with a question: Why is Muslim extremism increasing in Mali? I have been traveling to Mali ever since I was 9 and have been increasingly surprised that the country, which I never found to be more than nominally religious, has had such a drastic increase in fundamentalist groups and Al-Qaida supporters. This new direction of Islam's patriarchal and oppressive nature is fundamentally incongruous to the strength I have perceived in Malian women. Malian women are some of the strongest and most assertive women I've ever met. Even the language has matriarchal roots. So how is this happening? How can a country that I've always found to be, en mass, so reverent towards women shift so suddenly in the opposite direction?
Now, I am looking at the relationship between Malian women who identify as Muslim and the text of the Qur'an in the hopes of doing two things. The first is to understand the ways in which Islam has evolved in the region as it encountered local cultures, colonization, and a predominantly matriarchal society. And the second is to begin the scholarship on West Africa and the Qur'an. We are ignorant in the West about how Islam moved (and continues to move) through this region because no one has researched it before.
In a week, I will conduct a series of interviews with women who identify anywhere from nominally Muslim to extremely devout in the hopes of understanding the discrepancies between their interpretations of Islam and the leading versions of scholars in other regions. This is not to invalidate their experience in any way, but to trace the lineage of Islam in Mali. I hope to find out how religious extremism has taken a foothold in a region that has only recently become Muslim, and debunk the perception that such extremism is facilitated by the Qur'an. This research will conclude with an understanding of how practices such as polygamy, the veil, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) have emerged as "˜Islamic' in Mali.
The importance of this project is to provide not only scholarship for the study of Islam in this region and how it impacts and is perceived by Malian women, but to open the dialogue on the ground, woman to woman, about their interpretations of Islam versus the new readings of the Qur'an. This is the beginning to a new conversation about how fanaticism spreads, how people experience a religion that has been demonized by the Western media, and how a greater understanding of a religious text has the possibility of having a matriarchal interpretation.
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