Anne Darling Photography

Muslim Women and the Media

Part 5: Chinese Muslim Women

The number of Muslim women in China is difficult to estimate with great accuracy; however, according to the China Islamic Association's record of Mosques in 1955 there were approximately 40,000 registered Mosques.

With an estimated congregation of around 500 per mosque this equates to approximately 20 million Muslims, both men and women (40,000 x 500). This is probably an underestimate as in Beijing alone there are more than 80,000 Muslims in 42 mosques, in other words, 2,000 Muslims per Mosque. Taking into account the fact that the China's population has tripled, and including the one child policy, an estimate of 40 million represents a conservative figure with which to work.

To put this in a global perspective, adherents to Islam are reckoned to be approximately 1.2 billion and adherents to Christianity are estimated at 2.1 billion. Of this 40 million, the biggest group is the huizu or hui people, who are officially recognised by the Chinese government as an ethnic minority.

The huizu entered China in the 8th century AD as merchants via the Silk Road and today they live a life that is in accordance with the Qu'ran however there are many differences from Muslims in other parts of the world although not much is known about them outside China. Indeed many people are surprised to learn that Islam exists at all in a country which is officially atheist.

In China Eve Arnold
In China: Eve Arnold

One of the best known photographers to give us an enduring view of China is Eve Arnold, born 1913, whose exhibition In China was shown in 2008 at the Asia Gallery in New Cavendish Street in London. Her book of the same name appeared in 1980, the result of two arduous journeys in China which she undertook the previous year, at the age of 67, at a time when the Chinese government was opening up to the outside world.

Arnold's pictures resulted in an exhibition in New York in 1980 but have never been the focus of an exhibition in the UK. The London exhibition had just 40 photographs but a search on Magnum Photo’s website produced 259 images, all taken during 1979. Included are many images of Chinese women as accountants, pharmacists, machine operators, women making noodles and so on but there are very few images of Muslim women in the collection. Presumably this is at least in part because during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, the Chinese Government closed all mosques and many were razed to the ground. Although they were all rebuilt in the 1980s, when Arnold was in China there would have been little visible evidence of Islam. Nonetheless, we have the chance to see photographs of Chinese women through the eyes of another woman (Arnold was the first woman photographer to join Magnum Photo agency.

Woman Smoking a Pipe
China, Tribal woman in Hsishuang Panna, 1979. Photographer Eve Arnold

Among her many portraits, are pictures depicting Muslim women as strong and capable and certainly not oppressed or mysterious. However, the overall feel is too often that of the exotic 'other'. See, for example, the photograph above of a woman smoking a pipe and another from the same year (below) showing two young huizu women wearing so-called 'tribal' dress.

Hui Women
Hui Women. Photographer Eve Arnold

Although the title of this photograph is Hui Women, the word 'hui' is not included in the search keywords as little was known of the huizu at that time and from the description we can conclude that they were viewed as a tribe by Arnold herself, in other words, as a group of preliterate people who share some social relation rather than as a religious classification even though the term hui was defined by the Communist Party in 1930 to indicate ethnic Chinese Muslims in response to Japanese attempts to form an alliance with Muslims and Mongolians.

The Communist "Manifesto of the Chinese Central Soviet to the Hui people" granted them political autonomy, religious freedom and the right to bear arms. The hui were recognised in 1941 as one of five ethnic groups symbolised by the five stars on the Chinese Flag which include the Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans and Han Chinese.

What is unique about Islam in China is the existence of women-only mosques, where a female ahong (imam) guides other Muslim women in worship and is the main spiritual leader for the women in their community. Some of these female mosques or nusi are totally separate from the male mosque and the women have their own rooms for ablutions, prayer and studies.

The ahong herself may have her own living quarters as part of the mosque complex and financial support for her will come from donations from the community of Muslim women who come to pray. The only restriction is that female ahong are not allowed to lead salat, the five daily prayers that all Muslims must adhere to. Instead, these prayers are piped through loudspeakers into the female mosque from the male one nearby.

In spite of this, women-only mosques perform important functions within the Muslim community perhaps the most important one being that of education which has the dual purpose of ensuring the continuation of the religion but also enables many girls, particular in rural areas, to find a way out of poverty. In the past, the high illiteracy rate in China meant that most Muslim women and girls had to stay at home, as they had no opportunity to receive education or join in social life. Today, they can learn Arabic and study the Qu'ran which means that they can take an active part in mosque activities. More importantly, they improve their job prospects as there is a real possibility of finding employment as a translator, scholar or ahong or of going on to university.

These Islamic schools are often attached to nusi or they may be funded and run by independent NGOs which have been set up by Muslims specifically for the education of girls.

More needs to be known about the female Muslim community in China, and Muslim women in particlar, as it represents a different model to those currently being disseminated by the media. What we find in China is a moderate form of Islam, one that is neither anti-women nor feminist, a model that helps to move Western thought beyond the premise that Islam is anti-women. There is a burning need for positive images of Muslim women which shows them as they really are, beyond symbols and politics.

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