By Anna Zacharias
January 2, 2019
Down a narrow alleyway in central Xi’an,
past carts of steaming noodles and trays piled with goat hooves, is a door to a
seemingly unremarkable apartment building.
Inside, is a mosque much like any other
across the world but with one distinctly Chinese twist – inside this mosque,
there isn’t a man in sight.
This is a Nusi, a women’s mosque. It is run
by women, for women. Each has a female Ahong, an imam who can resolve political
or social disputes, offer counsel and even lead prayers and religious
When women step in from the alleyway,
shaking off their umbrellas and removing their coats, they have a space all their
own. Here, they are led by Lee Jing Ping, who has served the congregation for a
"For every mosque for men, there is a
mosque for women,” she says. “This benefits the family because women play a
very important role in society. A woman’s hand has always rocked the baby’s
cradle and it is the same hand that rocks the cradle of social
China is unique for its centuries-old
history of independent women’s mosques and female imams, a rare and
controversial practice outside of the country.
Lee Jing Ping sits in the first-floor
prayer hall, a simple space where the Mihrab is painted on the wall,
decorated in flowing Sini calligraphy.
She is part of a tradition unique to
China’s Hui people, an ethnic group accounting for 10 million of China's Muslim
In the 1600s, Islam in China was in crisis.
Religious knowledge was disappearing, worship was poorly practiced.
This prompted a cultural renaissance among
the Hui, whose intellectuals, translators and Ahong translated scripture to
make it accessible.
They also realised that education had to
begin in the home. At that time, women were not only unable to read Arabic and
Farsi but also Chinese. For Islam to survive, they knew women had to have
access to education. Before long, women themselves became educators; ensuring
Islamic knowledge would be passed on through the generations.
Over time, women became formal leaders in
collective celebration and managed madrasas. By the late 19th century, women’s
mosques were permanent spaces and female leaders were recognised as fully
Different female Ahong have varying levels
of power, from fairly dependent on male ahong to near autonomous. The role
varies according to region, mosque and community need.
"Many women have an understanding that
they have a long history of worship and pride in what they feel is a very
unique gender equality within the Ummah," says Dr Maria Jaschok, the
director of the International Gender Studies Centre at the University of Oxford
and co-author of The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam.
"The authority of female ahong is
great. Women worshippers will seek out their ahong and won’t necessarily seek
out a male ahong. They consider the highly educated female leaders to be quite
the equal of men," Dr Jaschok says.
Lee Jing Ping does not lead prayers but
guides the congregation in worship, prepares women’s bodies for burial and
teaches the faithful how to pray, study literature and read the Quran in
Prayers are broadcast from a nearby men’s
mosque. It is common for women to routinely perform five daily prays at the
mosque, rather than at home as is customary in much of the Islamic world. In
Ramadan, the mosque's two floors fill up with worshippers.
"About 90 per cent of what I do is
what a man does but some things are different,” says Lee Jing Ping. "I
don’t give sermons but that doesn’t mean I don’t have work to do. I also have
The Islamic quarter of Xi’an is full of
women’s mosques, most of which are affiliated with a men’s mosque. Lee Jing
Ping’s mosque is related to the eighth-century Great Mosque, a Tang-dynasty
complex of 20 buildings set in expansive gardens of pine and juniper.
Near the entrance of the quarter, Lee Yan
Fang leads a three-storey women’s mosque connected to an older men’s mosque.
She quit her job as a factory worker at a packaging company 15 years ago to
become its Ahong.
"It’s part of my identity because I
love peace and I am a servant of God," she says. "I was affected by
my father, who was like an ahong, so I like everything in Islam and I’m deeply
affected by it. I learnt from my father and always listened to his teachings
and so became an Ahong."
All religious sites in China must be
registered with the government. This state control is an unexpected boon for
female imams in the Hui community, granting them greater legitimacy than female
Islamic leaders enjoy elsewhere in the world. In the eyes of the state, their
status is equal to men.
Lee Jing Ping and Lee Yan Fang were
certified 10 years ago after passing exams by the government-registered Islamic
Association of China. Lee Jing Ping was the first ahong for her mosque; Lee
Yang Fang took over from another. Both are paid for their work. State control
is a double-edged sword and China is no paradise for Muslim women. In China’s
far west region of Xinjiang, religious restrictions on the Muslim Uighur ethnic
group are severe. Uighur women do not traditionally pray in men’s mosques and
can face prison for assembling in homes to worship. As many as a million Uighurs
are currently held in internment camps.
The Hui community has not always practiced
freely. Mosques were closed in China during the 1960s and 1970s after Mao
Zedong's Cultural Revolution, which repressed all religious expression. Even
today Hui Muslims can face restrictions.
Women’s mosques experienced a resurgence
from the 1990s onwards, expanding in rapidly modernising China as female
worshippers enjoy more economic prosperity and financial independence. They
have invested in their mosques and some have become quite opulent.
But globalisation has also brought the
community into greater contact with conservative interpretations of Islam from
the Middle East through travel and trade. Foreign-funded mosques have more
restrictive gender roles and criticise women's mosques as haram, or forbidden
"There really is a great deal of
debate within the Muslim community about whether that practice should be
continued," says Dr Jaschok. "China is more open, so there are more
pilgrimages and exchanges with Arab practices, and more fundamentalist and
austere practices. Should this, which some people considered an aberration,
something haram, be continued?
"There are voices saying: 'It’s not
really known anywhere else. It shouldn’t be continued, it should be closed
down.' There are quite a few vociferous voices but on the whole, women’s
mosques are rising."
Ahong Are Unfazed
"Firstly, I think the religion of
Islam is a fair religion," says Lee Yang Fang. "So I think it’s very
good and convenient for them to build a special mosque for women. Also, it’s
accepted by the government so it is not Haram, it’s legal."
Lee Jing Ping agrees. "I have heard
women’s mosques have started in China, and other places may not have anything
like this. The aim of this women’s mosque is not to struggle with each other
but to study with each other."
Muslim women in Central China are making
claims to equal religious authority, often using language similar to communist
rhetoric on gender equality, but placed within an Islamic framework.
"You certainly find a stronger
assertiveness and a greater claim to equality in terms of religious authority –
the right to teach and interpret, the right to interact with the community
outside mosques, the right to continue that stronger claim to equality," says
"This claim made by the younger
generation of leaders finds support from male ahong who see that as a
responsibility of women, because women are able to make important and
significant contributions to Islamic solidarity that is beneficial to the
This has brought another cultural
resurgence, the revival of jinnge chants. Farsi, Arabic and Chinese chants
practiced by Hui Muslims were passed down through generations as women studied
through recitation and memorisation. Jinnge chants were tremendously popular
before 1949 and made a comeback after their disappearance in the mid-20th
century during the Cultural Revolution.
Dr Jaschok travelled across China and
recorded 600 chants for a book now used in mosques. Chants are once again
performed with joy and pride before large groups of men and women.
"This is really showing off the
wonderful, rich diversity of Islamic practices," says Jaschok. "It
translates that into a very meaningful belief system that asserts women's place
within that modern world, as believers and as modern, thinking and critical