The women of Sangpo know well they are the guardians of a 300-year-old custom that sets them apart in Islam and they are increasingly mindful that economic development could be that tradition’s undoing.
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.
Guo Dongping, a female imam in Sangpo, describes her role as a combination of community organizer and language and religion instructor. In addition to leading prayers and teaching Arabic, Guo often serves as a counselor to the women in her flock.
“If someone is unhappy with her situation at home, especially when there are problems between a woman and her mother-in-law, she will come to the imam, who will console her,” she says. “Imams often deal with these issues. Some people don’t like to come to imams with these problems, but if the imams find out they will initiate heart-to-heart chats with these people and guide them.”
Guo, who is now 43, left Sangpo at 19 for Kaifeng, where she undertook the intensive studies needed to become an imam. Then, the journey took her a day by bicycle and boat. Today, the trip is less than two hours by car.
In Kaifeng, another center of Hui Islam in Henan, the older women who taught Guo speak about the need for separate spaces for women in the practice of religion. They joke about how women better understand than men the need be flexible about prayer times during the day, because women have more to do. Their mosque is tiny, a hidden shadow compared with the stunning piece of architecture up the road reserved for men. They don’t seem bothered by that, but pleased to have their own space.
“Women have take care of the children, they have to cook the meals, and we understand this,” said Yao Baoxia, the imam who heads the Wangjia Hutong female mosque in Kaifeng. “We consider and understand these things.”
While their precise numbers are unknown, China has dozens of female imams—more than anywhere else in the world, according to leading scholars. Most are in Henan province. They first appeared in the 17th century, in a doctrinal adaptation likely born of necessity. According to Shui Jingjun of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences, this owes to the land-locked province’s geography and history. “In the past, Muslims living in the central plains lived in scattered settlements, and therefore felt more sense of crisis because they were prone to outside influences,” Shui explains. “They had difficulty passing down their religion, so they thought men and women should work together.”
Maria Jaschok, director of the International Gender Studies Center at Oxford University, who has studied the female imams of China since the mid-1990s and who co-authored a book on the subject with Shui, says the lack of reliable statistics on the imams’ numbers owes to the fluid conditions under which they operate.
“They’re not registered separately, some are not registered at all and in many cases these are highly contested titles,” Jaschok explains. “Often the men, their counterparts, don’t see them as full imams.” The opacity of their ranks also, “reflects, in part, authorities’ own ambivalence about giving them recognition,” she says.
In Henan, along with a few Hui Muslim enclaves in northwestern China, women-run mosques are counterparts to the houses of worship for men; female mosques serve as community centers for women. Within them, female imams do nearly everything their male equivalents do, apart from officiating over weddings and funerals. Technically, they’re not allowed to stand at the front of the mosque to lead prayers, a symbolic gesture. Instead, the women lead prayers facing in the same direction as their flock, rather than facing out toward them as would the leader of a mosque for men.
The women have far more modest mosques, less funding, and smaller spaces, but their communities are strong and often at the core of familiar relationships.
Scholars say this unique approach to women in Islam has helped the Hui tradition thrive and led to stronger family ties. Women are not isolated or left home to pray on their own, or relegated to separate rooms inside the male mosque.
Female imams have survived periods of persecution throughout China’s turbulent history, including the Cultural Revolution, but today they face a different kind of threat. Many Hui girls now see office jobs and translation work as a better career path. Shui says historical research indicates religious reform during the late Ming dynasty helped raise the profile of women in Islam in this region. The reform movement called for greater emphasis on education, in which women played a critical role. Elevating women within Hui-style Islam proved productive and useful for the community, and the practice flourished.
Education clearly remains the central job of female religious leaders in Hui Henan today. In addition to leading prayers, Guo dutifully teaches Arabic to women who hope to learn enough to travel to Mecca. But recent economic growth has given her students new opportunities to use their education for non-religious purposes.
Sangpo, along with the rest of China, is speeding along the highway toward prosperity. A lucrative leather-tanning industry has subsumed the town, polluting the groundwater and leaving a lingering acrid smell of chemicals in the air, but making townspeople rich enough that dozens have been able to pay several thousand dollars each for pilgrimages to Mecca in recent years. Similar circumstances in other Hui enclaves are allowing female students to consider career paths that lead away from their local mosques.
Shui, who is herself a Hui Muslim, says the tradition is seriously threatened, as teenagers undertake difficult programs in learning Arabic and other training, when only a few will actually go on to lead religious communities. For the rest, the opportunity to earn more money and to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded by China’s rapid development steers most girls off the path that leads to becoming an imam.
“After much studying, if one cannot become an imam, he or she still needs another way to make a living,” says Shui. “Therefore, especially in recent years, both male and female mosques have experienced great difficulties recruiting students.”
That pressure could push the Hui toward a more globally accepted tradition of Islam, with a single person—a man—in charge of consolidated religious communities. The female imams of China are working on training and recruiting girls to try to make sure women keep a place of their own.