Women-only mosques, a unique feature of Islam in China
BEIJING (APP) – Niujie Women’s Mosque, a unique feature of Islam in China, is not just a worship place for local Muslim community, but very popular among foreign Muslim women visiting Beijing.
During the holy month of Ramazan, hundreds of women attend religious services every day at the mosque, located in Beijing’s
“China’s women-only mosques are the best representative of religion with Chinese characteristics. It’s a signature building
that shows our respect for women,” Liu Jun, director of the Niujie Mosque, told the Global Times.
“Besides serving as a platform for Muslim women to pray and learn about the religion, women-only mosques now also have a new identity – a platform to forge international communication,” he added.
Beijing’s first women-only mosque was built in 1921 in Xicheng’s Shouliu Hutong. The mosque was destroyed in 1997 amid a wave of demolitions of buildings considered dilapidated by the local government. In 2005, the government rebuilt the
new Niujie Women’s Mosque, near its old location and the Niujie Mosque.
Liu, referencing Chairman Mao’s famous statement, said that Muslim women “hold up half the sky” and are encouraged to play a big part in community activities.
According to Liu, in some Muslim communities in China and abroad there are no women-only mosques and women have
to pray at home.
There is no official data on the number of women-only mosques in China. Professor Shui Jingjun of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences wrote in her book that such mosques were first established in China’s central plains which include parts of Henan, Hebei, Anhui, Shanxi and Shandong provinces.
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region also has women-only mosques.
Liu said that the emergence of women-only mosques was a result of the intermixture of Chinese and Islamic traditions. He noted that the largest single Muslim community in China is the Hui who largely claim descent from Arab traders who came
to China as early as 13 centuries ago and settled in China, intermarrying with locals. This ethnic mixture is reflected
in their religious practices.
“So we have characteristics of Han culture, which is inclusive,” said Liu.
Besides the influence of their mixed origins, Shui’s book offers another explanation for the existence of women-only mosques.
When Muslims first came to China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), they were honored guests. But during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese Muslims fell out of favour with the authorities and were subject to repression. Under this persecution, the Muslim community had to make the most of its resources to ensure its cultural survival, and hence Muslim women had to help bear the responsibility of transmitting the faith.
So as early as the middle of the 17th century, religious schools especially set up for educating female Muslims emerged. During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), these schools developed into women-only mosques.
Women-only mosques aren’t only places for female Muslims to learn about their religion, but also an important resource for illiterate women, especially seniors, to learn basic knowledge, according to Ma.
During the Cultural Revolution, religious practices of all kinds were banned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that religion returned to public view and female Imams re-appeared.
Ma said that these days young Chinese Muslims learn about the Holy Quran from Islamic websites and books. But she feels
that it’s still necessary to have women-only mosques and female Imams.
According to Liu and Wang, in the last two years, they have seen more and more young Muslim women coming to the mosque for prayers, many of whom are college students.
Liu attributes the growth in youthful enthusiasm for Islam to the greater promotion of the religion on social media, which has made young people feel closer to their faith.