Women-only mosques, a unique feature of Islam in China

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BEIJING, June 25 (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 Ramadan, hundreds of women attend
religious services every day at the mosque, located in Beijing’s
Xicheng district.
“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.