Wed, Dec 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Muslim women do it their way in Ningxia

Chinese Islam has retained traditions of female spiritual leadership that have fallen away in other countries


In Ningxia, where individual rural incomes hover around US$315 per year, more young Muslim women see learning Arabic as a way out of poverty.

"It gives them a chance for employment," said Ma Mingxian, vice principal of the Institute for the Study of Islam and the Koran in the regional capital of Yinchuan. "She can be a translator, a teacher, or she can go on to study Islam at a higher level."

Ma's institute started accepting female students in 1992. Now 118 girls are enrolled and Ma is turning away applicants for lack of space.

At Wuzhong's imposing Central Mosque, 32-year-old Yan Mingnan shares duties with her imam husband -- he to the men, she to the women.

Yan said he is paid more -- about US$75 a month compared to her US$40 -- but he does more in the mosque while she cares for their two children.

"His burden is greater than mine because he has more students and leads the salat," Yan said.

Down a dusty track on the outskirts of Wuzhong, 30 girls study at the Muslim Village Girls' School for Arabic Studies -- a private boarding school set up by a local businessman.

Inside the converted courtyard farmhouse, they sing: "We are all Muslim youth, we have a holy mission and bear the hope of humankind."

Inside the school's office, an illegal satellite hookup broadcasts programs from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia.

But drawing closer to worldwide Islam may come at a price in Ningxia, where a new generation of women may start to question whether their tradition of female imams is truly Islamic.

At Ma's institute, 18-year-old Zhao Hongmei, in a long black robe and pink scarf fastened tight under her chin, shakes her head when asked if she would consider becoming an imam.

"Women aren't allowed to be ahong," said the sophomore from Ningxia's Haiyuan County, where there are dozens of mosques and female imams. "Some might call them that, say so and so is an ahong, but really they are female scholars."

As for the many Muslim women on the streets of Yinchuan who choose not to the wear the hijab, or headscarf, Zhao said: "It's because they haven't been taught the real Islam."

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