Putting the ’mam’ in imam

Beijing is encouraging the spread of female imams among its Muslims
Erica Alini
Putting the 'mam' in imam
Pierre Bessard/REA/Redux

Communism, which preaches the equality of men and women, has done nothing to redress China’s overweening cultural bias against baby girls, but it does seem to be helping women climb the social ladder in a rather unexpected place—the mosque. China, in fact, is the only country in the world with a tradition of female imams, a phenomenon that predates the advent of the People’s Republic, but which the country’s Communist government is helping to spread.

Women-only mosques and female preachers in China date back to the early 19th century, when they first appeared in the central provinces populated by the Hui, a Chinese Muslim group. Morocco also embraced the idea of female preachers in 2006, but the practice remains controversial in the Muslim world, and among many of China’s own 21 million Muslims. Chinese women’s mosques, though, found a helping hand in the government, which grants licences to practice Islam to both male and female imams through state-controlled bodies such as the Islamic Association of China. This kind of political backing is thought to be helping the spread of female-led mosques in areas of the country where women are still far from centre stage.