After receiving her Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion at Drew University in 2004, Dr. Mary Nyangweso Wangila spent several years teaching in a variety of locations prior to receiving an endowed professorship at East Carolina University. As the J. Woolard and Hellen Peel Distinguished Professor in Religious Studies, Dr. Wangila continues to flex her intellectual muscles, examining the interplay between religious and other sociological forces upon issues related to women’s and human rights, such as female circumcision, domestic violence, and the effect of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa on women. Her book, Female Circumcision: The Interplay of Religion and Culture and Gender in Kenya (Orbis Books, 2007), reflects the depth of her reflection on these issues.
Dr. Wangila’s scholarship addresses these issues in the context of Kenya, where she was born and raised. But she doesn’t limit her studies to the continent of Africa, nor does she study or teach these issues dispassionately. “There is no way I can present these issues passively; I have to take a stand,” remarks Wangila. She credits the unique setting at Drew for developing not only her academic prowess but her passionate activism: “I wanted to say something about transforming communities and most of my work was about engaged scholarship. Drew GDR was very supportive in that sense.” Founding the Women’s Interfaith Support Organization has provided her with a public outlet for her academic work as well as an active way to utilize her scholarship in the service of others. This organization provides a much needed ethical and theological reframing as well as financial assistance for young women who flee their homes in an effort to avoid female genital mutilation.
Dr. Wangila conducts seminars for religious organizations as well as individuals suffering from abuse, and advocates of WISO assist women in documenting abusive incidents. Dr. Wangila also uses social media in her efforts to end violence against women, particularly in instances where perpetrators attempt to legitimize their violence using religious language. Her commitment to public scholarship that betters the lives of others is reflected by her engagement in the process of forming an activist group for abused women.
In her role as teacher, Dr. Wangila emphasizes the non-sectarian nature of religious studies and utilizes a variety of approaches—historical, philosophical, anthropological, and archaeological, not to mention feminist. “Religion—whether we ascribe to it or not—affects all of us and its values inform social issues every day,” notes Dr. Wangila, who deeply values Religious Studies as a means to foster the understanding that “we are all interdependent upon each other.” The wide range of courses she teaches—from Introduction to Religious Studies to Women and Religion to Classical Islam and even Indigenous Religions—testifies to her passion for understanding religious motivations of a wide variety of people in multitudinous geographic and social settings.
Her passionate and thoughtful scholarship extends Drew’s academic inquiry into new communities of learning in ways that inspire us all.—Shelley L. Dennis, GDR Graduate Student Intern.