Here in the West, we have many crucial conversations about women’s place in the masjid and including a space for them (see the Side Entrance blog or the Twitter hashtag #BringDowntheBarrier for more information). However, in some areas in China, the situation is quite different.
The residents of the city of Kaifeng are Muslim and are of the Hui ethnic group. The Hui total about 10 million and are spread over many provinces in China. This beginnings of this ethnic group originate in the seventh century. Arab and Persian scholars, traders, and diplomats came to China via the Silk Road and sea, and they eventually formed their own class of important civil servants. This helped Islam emerge in China, and it became even more permanent in the 10th century, when the Arabs and Persians married Chinese women and raised Muslim children with them. Today, the Hui speak Mandarin and are indistinguishable from the rest of the population, unlike other Chinese Muslim groups who retain some elements of their non-Chinese ancestors’ languages.
During the second half of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), schools for women were established so they could learn to read Qur’an. Eventually, they developed into women-only masjids with female imams. This started in the Henan province, where the city of Kaifeng is located. Wangjia Hutong Women’s Masjid in Kaifeng is the oldest surviving women’s masjid in all of China. In fact, one of the plaques on the walls dates back to 1820!
Yao Baoxia is the imam of Wangjia Hutong and studied four years to become one after she was laid off from her job as a factory worker. She claims her main role is to teach women how to read the Qur’an. The women-only masjids in China achieved much in terms of girls’ education. For many of the elderly women, these masjids were the only place to receive some education when they were young. Yao believes perhaps female imams came to be because of the equal status men and women are given in the socialist country of China.
However, there are limitations in what female imams are allowed to do. For example, they are not allowed to lead the five daily prayers or the janazah prayer.
Furthermore, although there are 16 women-only masjids in Kaifeng, it is only a third of the number of masjids for men. There aren’t any reliable statistics on the total number of women-only masjids in China either since most women-only masjids are seen to be an addition of the male establishments. Regardless, for these Muslimahs, their masjids are seen to be a center for their community that offer important resources that help them teach Islam to the younger generations.
Photo credit: Ariana Lindquist