They lead Muslim women in prayer at mosques
Ningxia Hui: The number of female imams, known locally as ahong, acting as spiritual leaders and teachers for Muslim women, is rising in China, especially in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. They have broken through taboos and barriers and won wide recognition among female believers. After learning doctrines and taking certification exam, more than 80 female imams in Ningxia have been licensed by the government. They lead Muslim women in prayer at mosques, teach them about the Quran and Islamic culture and offer religious services. They also mediate domestic disputes and enhance women’s awareness of their rights. Female imams are playing an increasingly essential role in improving gender equality, the quality of local women’s religious life and social harmony. Every morning before the clock strikes five, 50-year-old Jin Meihua, a Muslim living in Wuzhong, Northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, has already hauled herself out of bed and walked into her living room. She turns on the lights, opens her Quran and starts to chant Islamic verses.
After preparing breakfast for her family, she trots to a mosque a few minutes’ walk away to lead a Quran study class.
There, dozens of Muslim women wait every morning for Jin to teach them about their religion. Over the course of a two-hour class, Jin guides them in chanting Quranic verses in Arabic and teaches them how to interpret the holy scripture. This has been Jin’s routine for 18 years, rain or shine.
Jin is a female imam or ahong, an Islamic spiritual leader. Female imams and female-only mosques are a distinctive feature of Chinese Islam, rarely, if ever seen elsewhere.
Currently, Ningxia has more than 80 female imams that have been licensed by the local government after passing official examinations. There are more than 3,760 registered mosques and 8,000 imams in the region according to a Xinhua News Agency report, and they provide services to the 2.32 million Muslims that live in Ningxia, one third of the region’s residents.
Born in 1964, Jin was forced to drop out of education after she completed middle school due to her family’s poverty. She married at 18 and had three children before she turned 30.
She tried hard to be a responsible wife and mother, but felt empty.”I felt so depressed. As a woman, I was told not to do this and not to do that. I could not work. I could not go to mosques. I wanted to know exactly what I can do and what I cannot do as a Muslim woman, and not just be told by other people,” Jin told the Global Times.
Like many other Muslim women, Jin started chanting Quranic verses when she was a child. But she had no idea what the scripture actually meant.
To understand the Quran, she would have to learn Arabic. She begged an elderly imam for permission to study in the mosque. He agreed to teach her.
Her path to becoming an imam was not easy. Many people, including her husband, encouraged her to give up. “I thought about giving up. I wanted to hide deep under a mountain and cried out when I was struck by too much pressure, but my desire to help other women who lived in the same misery as me kept me going,” Jin said.
Jin took the imam examination organized by the local government in 1996, together with 400 men. She was one of only four women taking the exam.Now, Jin has been an imam for 18 years and has tutored hundreds of female students. Some of her students have followed in her footsteps and become imams themselves.