China's Female Imams

Female imam leads prayer in China. Photo: NPR

China distinguishes itself in the Muslim world with a long tradition of female imams.

These imams or ahong – a Persian derived word – perform many of the same duties their male counterparts do. They lead prayers and teach the Qur'an but can’t lead funeral rituals or wash male corpses.

"In a country with about 21 million Muslims, women also have their own mosques to worship in – another practice different from other countries," said Shui Jingjun, of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences who co-authored a book on the subject. Women administered these mosques and women serve as the imams there.

In many other countries women attend the same mosques as men but pray behind partitions or in separate rooms. Many women’s mosques in central China began in the late 17th century as Qur'anic schools for girls. Then about 100 years ago, they evolved into women’s mosques.

Female imams can earn as little as $40 a month which is one-third of what’s earned in other jobs. This wage is not enough for women who need to support their families. This worries third-generation imam Sun Chengying who has been practicing for 21 years.

“I haven’t had any students since 1996,” she said. “Women don’t want to be imams anymore, because the salaries in the mosques are too low. No one is willing to do it.”

But the state-controlled Islamic Association of China has given political help to establish some women’s mosques in northwest China, where historically there were no such mosques.

While most Muslims in central China support female mosques, some Muslims who live closer to China’s border with Pakistan and Afghanistan don’t approve.

"Educating Muslim women is an important job," said Guo Baoguang of the Islamic Association of Kaifeng. But Baoguang admitted he was criticized for organizing religious education forums for Muslim men and women to participate in together.

Guo dismissed comments that women shouldn’t take part in social activities and should be restricted to the home.

“Given the fast development of China’s economy, and as its political status rises, I think Chinese Islam will become more important in the Islamic world,” Guo said. “The development Chinese Islam has made, like the role played by Chinese women, will be more accepted by Muslim elsewhere in the world.”

While Muslims may debate about whether women can be imams, Morocco became the first country in the Arab world to officially sanction training female religious leaders in 2006.