China: Woman imams play indispensable role in China's largest Muslim region

“At a tiny courtyard mosque in China's most populous Muslim region, Jin Meihua leads other women in prayer and chants."
"Every day, the 44-year-old dons a black robe and violet scarf and preaches to dozens of women at the Little White Mosque in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous region, where most of the country's Islam-faith Hui ethnic minority live.
She is a female imam or "ahong," pronounced ah-hung, from the Persian word "akhund" for "the learned." In China, a female imam is an innovation, despite being rare in Arab countries. ‘Many female Muslims do not have the benefit of a school education. Although they are Muslims, they know nothing about the Qu'ran. I want to teach them the Holy Scriptures and hope they can be inspired and think independently,’ she said. ‘Women ahong are the best qualified to do this because they can communicate with the female faithful in ways the male ahongs can't.’

As early as the late Ming dynasty (around the 17th century), the faithful had set up female Muslim schools around the country. These turned into female mosques operated by women imams in late Qing dynasty (around the 19th century). The practice of female imams then spread to all the Chinese Muslim societies, said Shui Jingjun, a Henan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences researcher. Currently, Ningxia has more than 80 female imams. There are more than 3,600 registered mosques and 6,000 ahongs in the region, he said.

23 June 2008