A Discussion with Mary Nyangweso, Associate Professor in Religious Studies, East Carolina University
October 21, 2014
Background: Growing up in a small Kenyan community, Dr. Mary Nyangweso came to question the gender norms of her society. Now a distinguished scholar living in North Carolina, she has dedicated her career to taking on some of the most contentious issues around women and religion in Africa. Mary spoke with Elisabeth Stoddard on October 21, 2014 to discuss religion’s dynamic role in Kenyan society. Using her gender lens, she reflects on the issues of female circumcision, domestic violence, and on the active discourse on LGBT rights in East Africa. She emphasizes her work through the Women’s Interfaith Support Organization and the importance of framing difficult gender discussions within a religious context.
How did you come to study women and religion in Kenya?
When I was growing up in Kenya, women were not encouraged to go to school. My father actually wanted me to go to school, but he was mocked by our community. However, even though he encouraged me go to school, he only wanted me to become a teacher. I originally dreamed of becoming a lawyer. My father said, “No, just go into teaching.” At the back of my mind I always had the question, “Why were these attitudes prevailing?” I wanted to pursue and find out the reasons I was being discouraged.
The other reason was politics. During my years in Kenya, I attended various campaigns and found scriptures being used by both Christian and Muslim politicians during elections. Women were not encouraged to participate in politics and the scriptures were used as a justification. I was eager to find out why. I decided to read the scriptures myself and to study what these religions actually said about women. So, when I went to college I looked at the intersection of religion social behavior, particularly gender relations.
Did your faith play a role in your decision to study women and religion?
Yes, my community was Christian but we had Muslim neighbors as well. When politicians and community members cited verses from the Bible or the Qur’an to discourage women from school and politics, I sought to understand the basis of their claims in my own religion.
When you study religion your faith can be strengthened or weakened depending on how you take the new knowledge about your religion. In that sense I came to understand that whereas scriptural texts were written by people with certain agendas and assumptions; there is very powerful and empowering message of God in the midst of assumptions. An educated religious individual seeks to unveil this message of God and what it means for humanity. Understanding that scriptural texts must be read within the contexts that they were revealed is a powerful empowering skill. Understanding that cultures can shape and even veil the message of God is important for spiritual growth. Although I consider myself a religious person, I am cautious about how I read and interpret the scriptural text to ensure that overall the message of God should be unveiled in each reading.
How does religion affect attitudes towards gender-based violence and female circumcision in Kenya?
Religion is a very powerful social tool, especially when it is presented by an authority figure, such as an imam, a pastor, or the Pope. Prophets were very powerful in their communities because what they claim to say is said in the name of religion. Religious authorities are viewed as the voice of religion in society. Whatever they say stands. In my research, I found that most people who practice female circumcision think religion has intended for them to carry out this custom. While scriptures do not preach female circumcision, religious authorities in these communities have affirmed the practice in the name of their religion. Fortunately, not all religions affirm female circumcision as a command of God.
How do you engage these voices in balanced discussions about controversial topics such as gender-based violence?
This is a huge challenge. In order to have an open discussion with religious leaders on difficult issues, you have to engage them through their own faith tradition and cultural context. When I teach my students about gender issues in Africa, I encourage them to always look at the issues from within the cultural and religious context. It is especially important to examine the messages of the religious leaders and the contradictions within the communities. Some religious leaders, for instance, argue that their culture and religious values do not allow women to have authority, yet women are actively participating in civil society through study, work, and voting. You have to look at these contradictions through the values of the context they live in at the time.
How does Kenyan culture and religion affect gender-based violence? Can you say more about your founding of the Women’s Interfaith Support Organization?
In Kenya, gender-based violence is a serious problem that is justified due to the male dominant culture and patriarchal structure of the family. Religion plays a role in these dynamics because it is used as reasoning for why these male centered structures should exist. Therefore, whenever one wants to address these issues he or she should approach them through a religious lens. In my organization, we try to implement this by creating safe spaces for women to come, read the scriptures, and discuss their experiences of gender-based violence. We try to have the women sit down as a group and talk to them about the scriptures. We read the text and analyze it for ourselves.
Sometimes, women do not take the time to study our own religions firsthand. We rely on what our religious leaders to tell us, including their interpretation of what the scriptures say. Interpretations can be wildly different based on the reader’s cultural lens. Therefore, our organization tries to give the women the opportunity to read and analyze the texts for themselves. The women can then discuss for themselves the core of the scriptural message: God loves everyone. God wants to accept you. God wants you to be able to protect yourself and be healthy. In meetings, we discuss and share about our experiences and current struggles. We try to encourage each other to feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to our spouses if we think the situation we live in is not healthy and to seek help where necessary. In situations of domestic violence, we support each other to stand up for ourselves and our children.
Does Women’s Interfaith Support Organization put systems in place to help women if they need to get away from domestic violence?
Yes, at the Women’s Interfaith Support Organization, we give women access to emergency resources, so they can call 911, or other forms of help such as counselling, legal, and even shelter services. We provide a way out for women so they can transition to safety for their sake and for their children’s sake. Through our meetings, we establish a network of women so they can rely on each other for emotional support. We also have a scholarship program to help women or children fleeing domestic violence go to school.
In our meetings, we discuss the challenges involved in going to religious leaders for help. We have realized that some leaders may not be useful, especially if “perseverance” is the only solution to domestic violence. Some leaders will say, “You have to be perseverant. You are supposed to listen to your husband.” If you get a minister like that, he will not be helpful. Not all religious leaders are unhelpful. But we recognize the fact that religious values can be a hindrance in seeking solutions to domestic violence issues in our communities. When we talk about these issues together, we give each other options and the strength through the scriptures to prevent and discourage domestic violence.
Do you find that framing women’s empowerment arguments within a religious context helps women to embrace these messages?
Absolutely. Once we are able to frame scripture in more positive way, women say, “Wow, I did not realize I could see it this way.” That opens their eyes to understanding why their situation of domestic violence is not right. Through our community, we encourage each other to address abuse and challenge abusive behavior even if they are scripturally or culturally justified.
You mentioned that many pastors can have interpretations that justify male dominance; do you engage them in discussions about women’s rights in the scriptures? Is this successful?
Before I speak to various congregations I seek their leaders consent. I explain what the group is there to discuss with women issues of domestic violence and abuse. So far I have not found any resistance. When I speak to pastors about my organization and the women’s group that we want to establish in their churches, I tend to emphasize how to draw empowering message from the scripture to prevent domestic violence. The same message can be given to men as well, as long as they are willing to join us. By the way, men are invited to join our discussions. Reading the scriptural message in light of God’s message of justice for all can be empowering for those who may not see hope in their situations. Emphasizing partnership is often well received in my group discussions.
Your research has also focused on indigenous churches in Kenya. Can you summarize what they are today and how they came about?
The African Indigenous Churches (AIC) movements grew out of the need to retain aspects of indigenous cultures within a Christian context. During the colonial period, even if the indigenous values were positive, they were not taken seriously. AIC began as a way to reassert the positive purposes and values of indigenous religions. What I have observed is that there is some sort of syncretism taking place, which means people align with what they feel comfortable; today they are Christians, other days they are indigenous. I find this in both Christian and Muslim communities. Syncretism provides a middle way for Africans to retain their culture even as they practice Christianity or Islam. AIC is an example of where indigenous African communities have tried to retain their values despite the influence of Christianity and Islamic values.
Does cultural retention play into the continued prevalence of female circumcision in Kenya? It was criminalized in 2001, but is still practiced today.
As I mentioned before, a large part of the reasons for founding AICs was to integrate indigenous values, practices, and culture into African Christianity. For some, this included retaining practices like female circumcision, especially in the years after independence. In Kenya today there are three main groups: those who want to uphold indigenous values, those that want to embrace modern values only including Christianity and Islam, and those who are in between—they want a taste of both worlds.
In that sense, yes, you’ll find that some want to retain indigenous practices such as female circumcision and polygamy. This is the challenge for the government which has outlawed practices such as female circumcision. The challenge is in enforcing the ban since is a cultural practice. How do you tell them that they are not obligated to practice what was bestowed to them by their ancestors or God?” The overall solution is that a girl who wants to go through it should be adult (18 years old) and informed about the possible health consequences associated with the procedure. As simple as this compromise sounds, it is still difficult to enforce.
Your work includes working with women in the diaspora living in the U.S. How did you get involved in this?
My second book, titled Female Genital Cutting in Industrialized Countries: Mutilation or Cultural Traditions (Praeger, 2014) is about how female circumcision has been imported into U.S. through the diaspora communities. Through this research I explore challenges that the immigrant communities face with regards to this issue’s health concerns, and the fact that the procedure is outlawed in their countries. Sometimes, women who have been circumcised visit local doctors to address health concerns emerging from the procedure. Most doctors in industrialized countries do not know what to do to help them since they do not understand the practice nor the values associated with the procedure. In the book, I give accounts of immigrant women’s experience with this issue and I also discuss a case of a woman who seeks treatment all the way in Africa just because they do not trust doctors in the U.S. The book discusses how community based outreach programs can be instrumental in educating immigrant communities about the procedure and how to access desired help. The also book addressed the role of religious leaders and faith communities in industrialized countries like the U.S. in working together to discourage these practices in efforts to protect the rights of children and young women that are exposed to the procedure unknowingly.
The community-based strategy I discuss in the book has been applied successfully in some countries. In Senegal, for instance, the Tostan outreach program was successful in engaging women who performed or promoted female circumcision and convincing them to stop. This was only possible through encouraging leaders to acknowledge the role of religious values in the persistence of the practice. They went village from village until everyone agreed to end the practice. This strategy can be applied in other countries as well.
Given your meetings with individual religious leaders, do you experience pushback regarding new readings of gender in scripture?
Definitely, there are some who are not enticed by the message or the mission that motivates us. Hopefully, we can bring on board many for the sake of social justice. Social justice cannot be attained unless religious discourse is involved. In my book, I talk about a Kenyan Muslim woman who used to circumcise girls. Although a human rights organization tried to speak to her to convince her to end her practice, she did not listen. This all changed when, one day the activist group involved an imam who spoke to her and explained how the Qur’an does not sanction the practice. It was the first time she questioned her practices. Soon after, she stopped preforming circumcisions, and began advocating against the practice. She is just one of the examples that illustrate the authority behind religion. She was very committed because she thought she was doing the right thing for God. People can change. Hopefully we can have many stories like that in spite of resistance in other instances.
So your approach is to present the information, point to scriptures, analyze, and hope they have a light bulb moment?
My approach is about empowering. To be empowered is to be educated. It is to be given knowledge on the issue so you make informed decisions. It is crucial that religious leaders are on board, because of their authority in communities that suffer from domestic violence. If they can speak to the congregation about these issues, even in small discussion groups, they will change attitudes. Leaders also need to be educated about empowering messages in the scriptures and how to use the scriptural teachings to promote social justice and general development in our societies.
Instead of preaching and citing passages to justify domestic violence, they should work at promoting more positive messages in the scripture for social harmony and welfare of all. My ultimate goal is to organize conferences and workshops in Kenya and in the U.S. to help communities engage about issues of abuse and to help religious leaders have a deeper understanding of gender-based violence and female circumcision. Religious leaders have great potential to address these issues directly through speaking to the men and women of their communities. It is my goal in my research and in the organization to help promote religious values that affirm the humanity of both men and women and to ensure that gender equality and human rights message is central to religious discourse.
Where there is resistance, you cannot force them. Sometimes, due to different interpretations of religious teachings, the community can get confused. It is okay to acknowledge and respect this as a complication. All you can do is present them with the information and let them decide for themselves.
What role does religion play in the prevention, treatment, and stigma of HIV/AIDS in Kenya?
To understand approaches to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and stigma in Africa one cannot go without acknowledging the social and economic factors that contribute to contracting the disease. There are so many myths associated with how HIV/AIDS is spread and caught. These have to be dealt with for effective prevention. In some African communities, it is argued that those who contract HIV/AIDS committed certain taboos.
The Christian perception has often explained HIV as a punishment for promiscuity or other “sins” such as homosexuality. And of course, there is the cultural aspect to HIV. In the African male dominated societies, women have been brought up and socialized to submit to their husbands even in matters of intimacy. Women find it difficult to say no to a man’s sexual advances, including rape. Women are not encouraged to go to school and, therefore, they lack the knowledge and the economic power which is necessary to leave a relationship where they may be exposed to HIV/AIDS.
Because of their dependency on men women cannot say no and men refuse to use condoms. When one is socialized in such a cultural context, a disease such as HIV can be devastating. To address this issue in a country such as Kenya, one has to look into all these factors—the cultural, economic, physical and social dimensions of this disease. All of these compound the difficulty of addressing this issue. Religion becomes a factor in the way that it is used to justify, not only the submissive status of women to men, but also in the condemnation and stigmatization of the illness. Efforts towards addressing HIV/AIDS in Kenya must involve religious actors as the stigma has to be dealt with simultaneously as the medical aspect is addressed.
More recently LGBT issues become important in Kenya. Is religion involved in these dynamics?
Absolutely, when you look at LGBT issues in Uganda, as in other countries in Africa, the missionaries’ message is central to attitudes towards gay community and what is happening. Kenya is just catching up on the debate that has been going on for a while. Western attitudes of traditional family values are embedded in the Christian and Islamic values. Although the rhetoric around protecting the traditional family values is used to justify anti-gay sentiments, homophobia is a foreign phenomenon.
I am actually working on an article that is exploring indigenous views of alternative sex lifestyle, in which I argue that indigenous views were not as dualistic as western ones. They were holistic in the way they viewed the society and beings in that society. Sexuality and gender roles were not as strictly defined. That is why, for instance, traditionally woman to woman marriage was allowed in some communities as a way of providing partnership to barren women. In that sense, indigenous cultures have some foundation for tolerance regarding LGBT issues. As for homophobia, a lot of that rhetoric is foreign product of the way Christianity and Christian values were taught in Kenya.
Sodomite laws in Kenya’s constitution, as in other colonial constitutions in Africa, were outside concepts that had nothing to do with the culture and values of the indigenous communities. Some have even questioned whether or not the interpretation of the scriptural verses in the original Greek and Hebrew texts do, in fact, affirm anti-gay views. One aspect that I study is determining whether the scriptures actually condemns or condones homophobia. Just like with the other controversial issues we have talked about, this discussion needs to be framed within a religious or cultural context since religion is a factor in justifying arguments for, or against, homosexuality.
Do you think LGBT will become a larger issue in Kenya?
I think all countries in Africa are grappling with this issue at the moment. Kenya and Africa in general are part of the global discourse on the rights of the LGBT community. There is no escaping this discourse. In fact, this year the Africa group of American Academy of Religion conference is devoting its session to the topic of LGBT as an African concern. This is just the beginning. As a human rights issue, LGBT is bound to be a concern for countries that want to foster positive relations with other countries. We have quite a strong human rights movement in Kenya and I do not believe it will leave the issue alone. I think part of the reason why the anti-gay legislation failed in Kenya is because of our strong beliefs in human rights.
Since questions of human rights are rooted in religion, you have to relate every LGBT discussion to the scriptures. In my opinion, there is no way to discuss human rights without discussing the religious values that have shaped their founding. There is no way to have a full discussion of LGBT in Kenya without religion.