China’s Female Imams

At China File, Kathleen McLaughlin describes China’s women-led mosques which, having weathered varying fortunes since the 17th Century, are now struggling to compete with the growing range of opportunities for young Hui Muslims elsewhere.

Sangpo, a dusty hamlet about two hours from the capital of China’s landlocked Henan province, is home to about 5,000 people, some 95 percent of whom are Hui Muslims. The Hui, China’s third-largest ethnic minority, number nearly 10 million followers of Islam in China. Many are direct descendants of Arab traders on the Silk Road who married local Chinese women, but the Hui today are mainly identified through their religion rather than by ethnic characteristics.

Packed into this town are six mosques run by women, whose congregants are all female, and only five headed by men—an imbalance the women point out with pride, and a rarity among Muslim communities in China, let alone the rest of the world.

This is the heart of a Hui Islamic practice that has been studied, derided, picked apart, and admired by scholars of Islam and of China. There are a few female imams elsewhere in the world, including in Spain, Turkey, and the United States, but for the Hui of Henan, the practice is not an oddity. Rather, it is a widely accepted part of religious life among women that is tolerated by men.

A short film on the female imams by McLaughlin and Sharron Lovell can also be found at ChinaFile.

China’s other major Muslim group, the Uygur (who numbered around 8.6 million, compared with 9.2 million Hui, according to the 2000 Census), also faces serious challenges. Chinese authorities recently staged an exhibition in Istanbul to reassure concerned Turks that all is well. From Matthew Brunwasser at PRI’s The World:

The exhibition features traditional songs and dances by two Muslim performing groups. The Uygur dancers are dressed in intensely colorful costumes as they perform tightly choreographed songs and dances. But unlike the music, and the rosy picture painted by the government official, life for Uygurs in China isn’t especially joyful.

“I don’t want to speak Chinese,” says a Uygur émigré I spoke to at the performance. She didn’t want to use her name, fearing reprisals against her family in Xinjiang. She says the Chinese government is trying to wipe out the Uygur language.

“I’m afraid for the future. I fear for the Uygur language that everyone will forget it everywhere it’s only Chinese,” she says.

The woman says the Chinese government is trying to assimilate Uygurs by force, eliminating Uygur-language education and giving economic opportunities only to the majority ethnic Han Chinese.

Kaifeng, noted in McLaughlin’s article as a training centre for imams, is also home to a community of Chinese Jews descended from 11th Century traders.