China's female imams carrying on ancient Islamic tradition

China's female imams carrying on ancient Islamic tradition

China's female imams carrying on ancient Islamic tradition

Updated 6 March 2014, 13:52 AEDT

China isn't the heartland of Islam, but it's the only country in the world to have a long history of female imams.

China isn't the heartland of Islam, but it is the only country in the world to have a long history of female imams.

A small group of women in central China's Henan province have been imams in their community for centuries.

This part of China is home to less than four per cent of China's roughly 23 million Muslims.

The believers are from an ethnic minority known as the Hui.

A group of Muslim grandmothers wander into a mosque behind an ancient city wall shortly before noon prayers on a Friday.

A crowd of 50 soon fill the prayer room.

Ge Caixia is their religious leader, a female imam in the mosque that's dedicated only to women.

She takes her place among them along the first row when it's time to pray.

If Ge Caixia were a male imam, the rest of the congregation would be standing behind her.

"When we have to conduct prayers at funerals, it's the man who leads," she said. "The woman can only participate."

These differences set her aside from her male peers.

Ge Caixia's standing in the community remains significant. There aren't many people like her in China, let alone the world.

Henan province has about 100 female imams. No other place in the country has such a high proportion.

Teaching Islam Ge Caixia's calling

Ge Caixia says she found it difficult to say no to her heart when the time came to make a decision between the secular world and the chance to spread the teachings of Islam.

She had a chance to take over her father's position inside a state-owned enterprise which in the days of the Chinese planned economy, meant a job for life.

She let her cousin have the opportunity instead.

Ge Caixia says most people have treated her with respect even though she has met some disapproving looks along the way.

"I met a male imam when I was in the northwest of China," she recalled.

"He said that women should stay at home, let their husbands teach them and told me their way of doing things is better.

"I guess it's their practice but it's not the Islamic way."

However, this centuries-old practice wasn't born out of a feeling by women to make a statement.

"It all started because Muslim women wanted to learn basic religious studies," researcher Shui Jingjun, who is also Hui Muslim, said.

"That's why they started female-only classes. Female imams began during the mid-Qing dynasty around the 18th century."

The practice has spread to other parts of the country, while places like Xinjiang remain male-dominated Muslim communities.

Big shoes to fill

Finding someone to replace Ge Caixia won't be easy because there aren't that many people willing to assume the heavy responsibility.

The four students that Ge Caixia last trained have all left to pursue other opportunities.

One of them is married to a male imam and looks after affairs concerning the Muslim women in their mosque. It's a common arrangement in China.

"It's not realistic to expect the young to give up their career to become a female imam," Ge Caixia said.

"Being a female imam requires special expertise, you must have a very deep and thorough knowledge of the religion and have the confidence and responsibility to fulfil this calling."

The next person to lead her congregation will have to be carefully chosen.

She can't be too young otherwise it will be difficult to command the respect of her ageing congregation - something that has happened at a female-only mosque in Shanghai.

But Ge Caixia isn't fazed by the challenges that lie ahead.

She and others believe the tradition will continue, making sure the story of the female imams of Henan lives on.