Despite harsh condemnation, they conduct women-only prayers, are taught the mysteries of Koran, and advise men on religious matters. Ynetnews presents rare journey to visit the Chinese Ahong – the only female imams in the world
Boaz Arad Published: 10.07.10
It is almost 1:30 pm, and the narrow, dusty alleyways of the bustling Muslim quarter in Kaifeng. This Chinese city of five million residents on the banks of the Yellow River in the Henan province served until a few hundred years ago as a home to China's Jewish community, the oldest Jewish community in Chinese history, which is now disappearing. Bearded men, wearing white skullcaps etched in delicate gold decorations, rush to the local mosque with its golden turrets rising high above the curved and bent slate roofs of the old stone houses. Walls bearing faded communist slogans can be seen alongside phrases from the Koran, as the Muezzin's voice echoes through the backyards.
Along the alley that leads to the main mosque, near a restaurant that serves only one local dish, a fragrant, oily, sheep stew, a group of old women with walking sticks passes through an ornately decorated gate and slips into a hidden courtyard, stopping at a small bathing room for a quick cleansing ritual. Afterwards the group makes its way, shoeless, to a modest room, floors covered with bamboo rugs and thin green mattresses. The women then join another group of around 30 elderly women dressed in jilbabs, their hair covered in colorful scarves; they bow down, facing west towards Mecca, heads touching the floor in obeisance.
For nearly 200 years this sight has been a daily reoccurrence, three times a day, in this little mosque on the edge of Wang-Je alley; a mosque without even one male congregant. You won't find a bearded imam leading prayers here but rather, a smiley, smooth dimpled and fresh faced female imam with laughing eyes. Her name is Yao Bao-Shiya, this is her mosque – a women-only mosque.
China is the only country in the world where women's mosques exist. In other countries where women are allowed to enter mosques, their prayer is limited to separate rooms or behind screens, separated from the main area of the mosque and hidden from the eyes of the praying men. The best place for women's prayer in the eyes of the more conservative Muslim world is in the living room of their private homes.
Not so according to the Hui, a large ethnic group descendant from the first Muslim traders to arrive in China via the Silk Road over 1,000 years ago, and many Chinese of the Han group who converted to Islam over the last few centuries and make up half of China's Muslim population. Not only do the Hui, devout Sunnis, see nothing wrong with establishing women-only mosques, they even entrust the management of the mosques to women who act as imams in every way. Or, as they are known in China – Ahong.
These imams lead women in prayer at the women-only mosques, make passionate sermons, impart the secrets of the Koran and even teach women to read and write in Arabic. They wash and purify the bodies of Muslim women who die, and function as advisors in religious matters for both men and women. Other then presiding over weddings and funerals, their authority is nearly identical to that of their male counterparts.
This is a unique phenomenon that doesn't exist anywhere else, says Dr. Maria Jaschok, Director of the Center for Gender Studies at Oxford University and expert in the history of Islam in China. There are places in central China where you can find more mosques for women than for men, and their have been a few, very rare cases throughout history where women led joint prayers for men and women, she says.
The Muslim world has never heard the like: When feminist Muslim activists in Europe and the US tried to lead joint prayers for men and women, they aroused the fury of their communities and prompted severe condemnation from well known preachers throughout the Arab world who stressed that the Koran forbids women to become imams – whether they lead joint prayers or women-only prayers – and claimed that their actions are s a major threat to Islam. The only Muslim country in the world where women have any religious authority is Morocco, where for a little over five years now, women are allowed to function as "spiritual guides" in mosques, but they are forbidden to lead prayers.
"Muslims in other countries feel that we go too far", confirmed Gao Baogong, the head of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng, which supervises the 64 mosques throughout the city, a third of which are used as women's mosques. "it seems very strange to them that a woman acts as imam. They are mistaken, of course. Women and men should have total equality. I'm not the only one saying it. The prophet Mohammed said it in his own words."
The Islamic Association of Kaifeng, like any other official religious organization in China, is a government body with offices subject to rigid and exacting state laws, which precede religious law. But the liberal Islam of the Hui grew in China regardless of Communism.
Other Islamic minorities in China don't even allow women to enter mosques, and no law forces them to allow it. The Hui's liberal view grew here long before Mau Zedong's army liberated Chinese women from the chauvinist yoke. Women's mosques, which started out as Islamic Madrasas for girls, popped up throughout central China's provinces as far back as the 17th century.
'Arabs should learn from Chinese'
Unlike other Muslims in the communist state, the Hui are very much a part of Chinese society, and other than the skullcaps and head coverings, act, talk and look Chinese in every way. Their relative distance from China's western border regions allowed their traditions to evolve with very little influence from the radical and traditional Islam which exists in nearby states.
As female imam Yao Bao-Shiya explains, "in China a situation where a women stays home and doesn't go out to work doesn't exist. I believe Arab women are too dependent on their men. They need to get out and fulfill their potential."
Yao, 48 and mother of one, arrived at the mosque completely by accident. After she was fired from her factory job, she found herself sitting home all day with nothing to do. Taking her devout mother-in-law's advice, she started going to Friday prayers at the mosque. After a few months, she began to study Arabic, and from there continued to Islamic studies. Soon she found herself studying how to be an imam – first under the guidance of male imams, and later an experienced female imam.
Some 40 women, mostly pensioners, come to her ancient mosque daily for prayers. On Friday, the number of women increases. For many, the mosque is much more than a room for prayer: it is a second home, a community meeting place and a place where they pass many hours in conversation and reminiscing. Young Muslim women are rare visitors, and this worries Yao. Becoming an imam is a time consuming process and pays very little. Not many candidates reach the finish line, and of those who do, few choose to actively become imams.
It seems that the biggest threat to the unique tradition of the Hui's women mosques is not radical Islam, but China's developing economy. "It's a problem" admits Gao Baogong, the head of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng, "but a problem we can solve through education. Much effort is put into the situation". For example, an Islamic college offering special imam training courses for women was opened in the capital of the Henan province, a 40-minute train ride from Kaifeng.
Gao is optimistic. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before women's mosques open throughout the rest of the Muslim world. "The Arab world" he says, "needs to learn from China's example. Not the other way around. In relation to women's rights, I think we have done a much better job than the rest of the Muslim world".
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