Research Interests
Law & anthropology, human rights, sexual violence, Romani studies

Research Area(s)
Eastern Europe (esp. Bulgaria), the Balkans


Maria Nikolova is a lawyer specializing in women’s rights, with a specific focus on sexual violence. She gained her experience with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee in Sofia, the Office of the UNHCR Representative in Sofia, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, criminal barristers' chambers in London, and in collaboration with the Women’s Human Rights Training Institute, an international network of lawyers and activists.

Nikolova is a member of the Sofia Bar Association. She holds a Magister Juris from the New Bulgarian University and an MPhil in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her MPhil thesis explored the litigation strategies of Christians in the Ottoman Muslim courts in the Balkans from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

As a doctoral candidate in the Department of Law & Anthropology, Nikolova is conducting research on criminal trials stemming from disputes in customary marriages among the Romani people in Bulgaria. The investigation is centred on Romani litigants’ own representations of their core complaints before the formal authorities. The study examines how the courts ‘make sense’ of the background story and ‘translate’ it into specific criminal charges.

Nikolova is also a contributor to the CUREDI legal database project (a database of European laws touching upon cultural and religious diversity), in which capacity she applies her expertise specifically to cases related to Roma and sexual violence.

Why Law & Anthropology?

In my experience, practising law, especially of the non-profit type, tends to infuse one with its adversarial dynamic, and very soon one learns to think of people, structures, institutions, and justice mechanisms as either friend or foe, usually as foe. That is the nature of the field. Being faced with numerous and constant violations of people’s rights, from the extremely trivial to the inordinately grave, a human rights defender stops asking herself, ‘Why do violations occur?’ and starts asking, ‘How dare they?’ This question, being merely rhetorical, threatens to block critical thinking. Having gone through all the above stages, I reached a point where I suspected that anthropology may have ‘the cure’. In fact, the Spanish proverb La cultura cura perfectly suits, in my opinion, this cross-section of anthropology and law, and can begin to explain the legal system not only to a puzzled social scientist, but to a puzzled lawyer as well. Looking at law through anthropology may provide an answer to Geertz’s famous question (albeit in a different context), ‘What happens to verstehen when einfühlen disappears?’ More importantly, it may show us how to prevent the gradual dissipation of our readiness and openness to understand. This is what I hope to accomplish at the Department of Law & Anthropology in Halle.

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