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China's Female Imams

Muslim women have broken many a glass ceiling over the years, but China has oneupped them all.

Girl power is rarely a term used to describe women breaking glass ceilings in religion, let alone Islam, but it seems an unusually fitting use of terminology to express what female Imams are doing in China. The concept of a female Imam is one we are unfamiliar to begin with because it is a rarity – a virtually nonexistent phenomenon actually – across the Muslim world. But in the socialist country, women not only play the role of Imam, exactly the same as a man would, but also have their own mosques, an anomaly of a situation when compared to rest of the Muslim world. Across most Muslim nations, the general norm is that women pray either in a separate room in a mosque, or behind a partition; they aren't given their own house of prayer. However, in China, a country with a 21-million-strong population of Muslims, the country has over the years implemented Islamic practices infused with their own set of characteristics, which includes all-female mosques complete with female Imams. We think that sounds like a situation that warrants the term girl power, does it not?

These women, who are known as ahongs in China, a word derived from Persian roots, not only lead prayers (though they stand alongside the women and not in front of them as a male Imam traditionally does) but also serve as teachers of the religion. One such imam, Yao Baoxia, who practices her faith in central China's Henan province, tells NPR: "When people come to pray, they don't know how to chant the Quran, so my job is teaching people about Islam, helping them to study one line at a time and leading the prayers." The mosque where she works (the practice of being an Imam is essentially considered a job), like other women's mosques in China, started out as a Quranic school for girls, a phenomenon that emerged as far back as the 17th century in China; the transformation into women's mosques occurred about 100 years ago.

Not only does the existence of these female mosques and Imams come as a shocker to many because it is so uncommon in the rest of the Muslim world, but the vast irony of the situation also lies in the fact that atheist Chinese authorities endorse a practice that many Muslims find controversial, or downright unacceptable. Women Imams are still a source of contention in the Muslim world and it was only in 2006 that Morocco became the first Arab country to sanction the training of female religious leaders, while in China, which is actually the only country to have such a long history of female Imams, the phenomenon is also expanding throughout the country, aided by the Islamic Association of China, a state-controlled body, that issues licenses to practice to both male and female Imams without discrimination. Of this lack of distinction between men and women's prominent roles in the religion, Yoa says: "The status is the same. Men and women are equal here, maybe because we are a socialist country."

That is not to say that in China female Imams there can partake in all the same practices as their male counterparts (they cannot lead funeral processions or wash male corpses for instance) or that the issue doesn’t not come with its own set of controversies. Though in central China Muslims largely support female Imams, China's borders, areas with more hardline sects of the religion, experience more resistance to it.

There are criticisms towards women's role, saying that their role is in the home but overall the current concerns about the future of female Imams in China revolve largely around financial issues. It’s a job which pays a very low salary, an amount which constitutes a third of what women can earn in other vocations, and young women need to contribute to the family income. As such, they are not as ready to take on a job which would earn them significantly less money.

Despite this however, it is at once both slightly ironic and yet still a powerful statement for the empowerment of women, that it is an atheist Asian nation that is leading the way for women in Islam instead of an actual Muslim country.