Islam is one of the largest religions in China with an estimated 100 million followers, and the biggest group practising Islam is the hui, one of 56 ethnic minority groups recognised by the Chinese government.
However, the definition of the hui as being Islamic Chinese poses two problems. The first is that the People’s Republic of China is officially atheist.
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Above: Ding Gui Zhi, the female imam who runs Lu Lan Women's Mosque in Lanzhou, Gansu Province (photo by Anne Darling)
The second is that if Chinese Muslims are entitled to ethnic group status, then there is uncertainty about the status of Chinese Christians and Buddhists.
In according the hui status as an ethnic group, the government has avoided this issue by defining them in terms of their group identity and ignored the fact that their group identity is based on religion.
However, many hui believe that the status is appropriate because they have a history and culture that depends on their being Muslim, thereby setting them apart from other Chinese groups.
For example, as Muslims they do not eat pork, the most common meat consumed in China. Neither do they eat dog, horse, many birds, and other animals considered delicacies in Chinese cuisine.
Their mode of dress also differs in that adult males wear white caps and females wear headscarves and occasionally veils, as is the case in most Islamic cultures.
In the past, the high illiteracy rate amongst women in China meant that most Muslim females had to stay at home, as they had no opportunity to receive education or join in social life. But in Ningxia today, young people are flocking to learn Arabic, partly for religious reasons but also in the hope of finding a job as a translator, scholar or imam.
For young girls living in the countryside, this represents a route out of poverty. In Yiwu, in southeastern Zhejiang province, 700 Arabic speakers from Ningxia work as interpreters and translators. Another 300 work in Guangzhou. Interpreters can earn 3,000 yuan a month (about 400 US dollars), rising to 10,000 (about 1400 US dollars) or more. Girls start learning Arabic initially so that they can go to the mosque where the imam gives prayers and recitals in the language of the Qu’ran. From here, they can progress to become interpreters, then scholars, and possibly imams.
Today, in Ningxia, religious schools for girls are common and often women maintain separate mosques. As a child, Jin Meihua could not go to mosque so she decided to study Arabic and the Qu’ran, and last year she passed the exam held by the Ningxia Islamic Association, and became one of eight female imams in Wuzhong. She now works in a small mosque in Wuzhong, helping women to think positively and do good under her guidance and interpretation of the Qu’ran.
At another mosque in Wuzhong, 34-year-old Yan Mingnan shares duties with her imam husband, he to the men, and she to the women.
She says his burden is greater than hers as he has to lead salat and he does more in the mosque whereas she has to care for their two children.
This division of labour is reflected in their respective earnings. He earns a little over US$75 a month compared to her US$40 (as of 2005).
Ningxia is the eighth-poorest of China’s 31 provinces with an average income in rural communities of around US$315 per year and a gross domestic product per head of the 5.7 million population about (in 2004) about US$1000). However, China currently has an economic plan in place designed to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor with particular emphasis on rural development.
One of the ways of alleviating poverty in Ningxia is through the growth of business ties with the Arab world which has increased tenfold in the last decade reaching US$51.3 billion last year. To this end, the Chinese government has relaxed passport controls making it easier for Muslims to make the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Muslims hope to make it at least once in their lifetime, and nearly 10,000 are expected to go this year, compared with just seven Chinese pilgrims in 1978.
The needs of the women who belong to the hui minority are very important in encouraging change for the better within their community. Tradition, the government, the economy, and changing attitudes all support them in their quest for greater independence, economic freedom and their desire to be good citizens.
Being Chinese, a member of the hui minority, an imam, a wife and a mother, are all challenging roles. Given this mix of roles, it is especially interesting to follow the lives of these female imams in the fast-changing world of China.
Lu Lan Women’s Mosque in Lanzhou (Gansu Province) is totally financially independent. It survives from donations by local businesses and from women who come to the mosque.
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Ding Gui Zhi, 69, is the female ahong or imam at Lu Lan Women’s Mosque. The daughter of parents who were both ahong themselves, she became a certified religious leader herself later in life, after raising five children alone following the death of her husband 25 years before.
She works and lives in the Mosque, where she has two rooms for her exclusive use, one acts as a sitting room/reception room, the other as a bedroom. The photographs show the prayer room at a quiet time, as it often has more than 100 women.
The chef at Lu Lan is known as Xiao Wang’s Mama. She earns about 300 yuan ($42) for one month’s work during Ramadan, preparing one meal a day for up to 100 women. All women are welcome to come to the Mosque to eat and there is no charge for the food.
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