Tea Leaf Nation

China: The Best and the Worst Place to Be a Muslim Woman

The officially atheist state has emboldened Muslim women in central China while marginalizing them in the far west.

SANGPO, CHINA - JULY 11:  Hui Muslim female Imam Yonghua Zheng sits in front of worshippers as she prepares to lead prayer at the women's only Qingzhenshang Mosque on July 11, 2014 in Sangpo, Henan Province, China. As part of a tradition dating back to the late 19th century and unique to China's 10 million Hui Muslims, Zheng is one of hundreds of female Imams leading all female congregations in the women's only mosques of northwest China. Though able to teach and lead prayers for women, they are forbidden from overseeing funeral rituals or washing male corpses before burial.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
SANGPO, CHINA - JULY 11: Hui Muslim female Imam Yonghua Zheng sits in front of worshippers as she prepares to lead prayer at the women's only Qingzhenshang Mosque on July 11, 2014 in Sangpo, Henan Province, China. As part of a tradition dating back to the late 19th century and unique to China's 10 million Hui Muslims, Zheng is one of hundreds of female Imams leading all female congregations in the women's only mosques of northwest China. Though able to teach and lead prayers for women, they are forbidden from overseeing funeral rituals or washing male corpses before burial. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A woman’s solitary voice, earthy and low, rises above the seated worshipers. More than 100 women stand, bow, and touch their foreheads to the floor as a female imam leads evening prayers at a women-only mosque during the first week of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan in the northeastern Chinese city of Jinan. Reclining beggars line the gates, asking alms from the women who casually come and go. Though the women of Jinan have enjoyed a mosque of their own for much of their lives, such spaces are extraordinary in a global religion still largely dominated by men.

Meanwhile, in Urumqi, the capital of the autonomous Chinese region of Xinjiang that sits 2,000 miles west of Jinan, Muslim women live very different lives. One week before Ramadan began, I witnessed a police officer harass a veiled woman on the street. Along with her headscarf, she had donned a medical face mask, likely as a way of skirting the city-wide ban on face veils that local authorities have imposed. The policeman appeared to have assumed that she wore the creased white face mask for religious rather than health reasons, as Muslim women there sometimes do. In Urumqi, it is forbidden for students, teachers, and civil servants to participate in the Ramadan fast. And outside the main mosque in the city’s historic district of Erdaoqiao, there are no beggars, but rather four soldiers with automatic weapons standing inside a steel cage reinforced with spikes, as though under siege.

Such is the bifurcated state of religious freedom in China, where Muslim women either enjoy unprecedented space for religious expression or face more restrictions on their faith than they would almost anywhere else in the world — all depending on who, and where, they are. And behind both extremes lies the powerful hand of the Chinese state.

***

Zhang Pingyun is in her 50s. A sturdy woman with a hearty laugh, she is the Jinan Women’s Mosque’s principal imam, or as Islamic religious leaders are called in China, ahong — from the Farsi word akhund, harking back to the Persian traders who helped introduce Islam to China a thousand years ago. She has served as an ahong at this mosque in China’s eastern Shandong province for more than 25 years.

China is the only country in the world with a long historical tradition of independent women’s mosques, which developed throughout central and eastern China among ethnic Hui Muslims like Zhang, a Chinese-speaking ethnic group of 10 million often physically indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese. It’s a controversial phenomenon still rare in the world today — by comparison, the first women’s mosque in the United States didn’t open until January 2015. That’s because the idea of an official religious space dedicated exclusively to women, as well as the official recognition of female imams, are considered innovations that change or add to orthodox Islamic practice, and many view such innovations as haram, or forbidden. 

Lack of Islamic precedent doesn’t seem to faze Zhang, whom worshipers call Zhang Ahong. “Society is different now,” she commented. “Women work outside the home.”

On the second day of my visit to the Jinan Women’s Mosque, pictured below, I watched Zhang ascend the podium and deliver the noon sermon to a roomful of around 150 women gathered for Friday prayers, the Islamic equivalent of Sunday morning church services. She offered spiritual guidance to the women, exhorting them to approach the month of fasting with a sense of gratitude. “Ramadan isn’t just not eating and not drinking water for a day,” Zhang declared from the podium. “It’s a chance to get rid of your bad habits. It’s a gift from God.”

One need not be a woman forced into a burqa under the Taliban in Afghanistan, or forbidden from driving a car in Saudi Arabia, to appreciate how empowering such a scene is. Born in a small city in Texas, I grew up in a church where women weren’t permitted onstage during services. I attended a private Christian college where, as a female student, I was barred from taking preaching courses and from leading the daily school-wide mandatory chapel services. But there stood Zhang, preaching boldly in that religious space like it was her right.

And under Chinese law, it is her right. Unlike the U.S. constitution — Congress never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment — the Chinese constitution affirms the principle of equality between men and women. The Chinese constitution may often be honored in the breach, but gender equality is a concept that many Hui Muslim women have apparently internalized. Maria Jaschok, a research fellow at the University of Oxford and coauthor of the book The History of Women’s Mosques in Chinese Islam, told me in a phone interview that Chinese Hui women view themselves “not just as Muslims, but also as Chinese citizens, and as such have the right to exercise” their gender equality, including in the realm of religion. Hui women, said Jaschok, know that they live in a country that does not tolerate what government authorities call “backwards or feudal” customs, and many believe deeply in the notion that “what men have, women should also have.”

A kind of “old-fashioned feminism” is how Dru Gladney, professor of anthropology at Pomona College in California and an expert on Chinese Islam, described it in a phone interview. Gladney related how in the 2000s, one women’s mosque in the historic city of Xi’an had spearheaded an effort to save the local Hui Muslim quarter from government demolition. The women helped transform it into a popular restaurant district that successfully remained, even in China’s drinking culture, alcohol-free. “China is just an oasis of Islamic revitalization in some areas,” said Gladney.

Government policies have done more than encourage a sense of self-confidence among Hui Muslim women. In the 1990s, Chinese authorities began to require that all religious sites, pagodas, chapels, and mosques register with the government and comply with certain guidelines. Many experienced the new regulations as unwelcome state interference that restricted their activities. But for female-only mosques, whose existence had been tenuous for much of their history, mandatory registration was a welcome gift, not a restriction.

“That was a milestone for the women,” said Jaschok. It was an “extraordinary opportunity to have legal recognition of their status,” making them “equal with men.”

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That uncompromising Soviet-style push for equality has made itself felt across religious boundaries in China. It’s no coincidence that the first time I ever saw a woman stand in front of a congregation and give a sermon was at an official Chinese Christian church in the southern coastal city of Xiamen in 2010, when I was 24. For me, it was a revelation. I was accompanied that day by a young American Christian man. After the service was over, he told me he was troubled by the woman preacher, whose existence he took to be evidence of the state-approved church’s weak theology. Sometimes the difference between liberation and persecution divides neatly along gender lines.

Despite the long history that female-only mosques have enjoyed in China, their equality with men’s places of worship has not been guaranteed. These unique women’s spaces have faced pressure throughout their history, and conservative movements within the Muslim community, both inside and outside of China, have not always been friendly to their existence. Even today, Jaschok told me, especially with China’s growing engagement with more conservative Arab countries, there are those who “would be extremely pleased to see these women’s mosques and ahongs disappear.” Foreign organizations from Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia have funded the construction of mosques and schools in China; these foreign-funded institutions enforce more traditional gender roles and view women’s mosques as heretical. But overall, the Chinese government places tight limits on foreign religious influence, viewing it as a threat to ruling Communist Party control; and in Jaschok’s opinion, women’s mosques in China have “survived because of the protection of the Communist Party state.”

Of course, the party, which took the helm in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, doesn’t merit credit for the original existence of women’s mosques. They had developed gradually over several centuries, evolving out of the need of a tiny minority religion to stem the inexorable tide of Chinese Confucian culture by ensuring Muslim mothers knew their own religion well enough to pass it to their children. And during the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of chaos and factional violence during the 1960s and 1970s, the party closed all religious institutions, including women’s mosques, and heavily persecuted believers of every stripe.

But after religious activity was once again legalized in the 1980s, women’s mosques in central and eastern China have largely flourished. “When you look across the globe,” said Gladney, for women in Islam, “China is one of the bright spots.”

***

Yet in Xinjiang, a nominally autonomous region in China’s far west, women face some of the most draconian restrictions against Islam in the world. No revelations of religious empowerment awaited me there; it proved very difficult even to broach the topic of religion with many Uighurs, the largely Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group who call Xinjiang home. That’s because in the highly militarized and resource-rich region, once more than 80 percent Uighur but now dominated by the country’s majority Han Chinese, it can be risky for a Uighur to be seen speaking with a Western journalist.

Barna is a Uighur Muslim in her late 20s who likes ice cream, fast-fashion clothing retailer H&M, and the music of Sami Yusuf, a British Muslim whom Time magazine has hailed as “Islam’s biggest rock star.” She and her husband, both from southern Xinjiang, arrived in the United States from China a few months ago and have now settled in a city on the East Coast. Barna, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, told me that she and her husband came to the United States in search of greater freedom.

Whereas Muslims in central and eastern China enjoy relatively broad freedom to practice their faith, Uighurs in Xinjiang live with tight strictures on their religious expression. Uighur men in some counties must register each time they enter the mosque, and only government-approved mosques are permitted to operate. In addition to prohibitions on certain religious dress and Islamic symbols, local authorities have even imposed an annual ban on fasting during Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam that forms an essential part of a Muslim’s spiritual practice. It’s been reported that to enforce the ban, schools and work units are required to monitor the behavior of Muslim students and employees to ensure they are eating.

Chinese authorities claim that such strictures are needed to combat radical Islam, which they allege has caused the periodic violence now plaguing the region. Unlike the scattered Chinese-speaking Hui who have no true homeland or ethnic connections abroad, Uighurs identify as a Turkic people with a history of autonomy in a homeland where many Uighurs now feel marginalized by discriminatory policies. Such sentiment has fueled a nascent separatist movement and boiled over into ethnic tensions, visible in such disturbances as the deadly 2009 Urumqi riots. But critics assert that the religious restrictions only serve to feed what has become a vicious cycle of repression and violence there.

Life is difficult for many Uighurs in Xinjiang. But the weight of religious restrictions has fallen disproportionately on Uighur women, whose space for expression of their faith — already circumscribed within the confines of a conservative culture — has been crushed. Unlike central China, Xinjiang has no historical tradition of women’s mosques, and according to Uighur custom, women do not pray in men’s mosques. As a result, Uighur women developed a strong tradition of gathering informally at each other’s homes to share religious knowledge, provide social support, and sometimes even pool their resources to fund small-scale entrepreneurial endeavors. But as authorities have issued ever tighter regulations on spiritual practice across the region and cracked down on what they term “illegal” religious activities, it has become difficult and even dangerous for Uighur Muslim women to attend any kind of Islamic gathering at all.

“After 2009, everything changed,” Barna told me. “Now the rule is, if I go to your house, read some Quran, pray together, and the government finds out, you go to jail.” The local Xinjiang authorities, which have demonstrated their ability to impose jarring regulations on Islamic practices in the region, could pass laws requiring the mosques to open their doors to women or laws establishing spaces to allow Muslim women to meet. But they have made no such attempts — perhaps, Barna agrees, because authorities see no benefit in encouraging more people to attend the mosques. “They want to cut off our religious faith,” Barna said. “Religion [is what] makes us strong. They’re afraid of us.”

In addition to stifling their ability to raise capital for small businesses, the ongoing crackdown has also severely limited Muslim women’s career choices. Xinjiang authorities discourage or even forbid government employees — not only civil servants but also teachers, police, military, and employees of the massive state-owned enterprises that dominate the region — from wearing headscarves. This can force observant Uighur women to choose between their job and a fundamental element of their religious expression.

In Barna’s case, she chose her religion. The young woman had graduated from college with the hope of becoming an English teacher. She sat for the requisite government examination, passed, and was offered a job. “It was a very good opportunity,” Barna said as we sat in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment, eating a sour pomegranate she had purchased at a local Chinese market. But she wears a headscarf, and on top of all the other control that the work unit tried to levy on her — no fasting during Ramadan, restrictions on praying on government property — the headscarf ban was too much. She quit the teaching job and took a position as a translator at a small private company. Now that she lives in the United States, Barna hopes to start a family, attend graduate school, and return to the career path she was forced to abandon in China.

In that way, Barna is one of the lucky ones. Authorities often refuse to issue passports to Uighurs, especially in southern Xinjiang, or require a huge bribe before processing Uighur applications for the travel document. In the past several years, hundreds of Uighur families have attempted to flee China on forged travel documents, only to be detained in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. In July, Thailand repatriated more than 100 Uighurs under pressure from Beijing, despite objections from human rights groups and the U.S. government, who say they fear those sent back may face retribution or even capital punishment upon their return.

“They want freedom, but they didn’t [get it],” Barna said, who had finally been able to obtain both a passport and a U.S. visa after trying for years. “I did. It’s like a miracle.”

***

Hui Muslims, of course, don’t always fall outside the orbit of state suspicion. Shortly before Friday prayers on June 12, when I visited the iconic Niujie Mosque in Beijing’s historic Hui district, I counted a total of 29 police officers stationed around the front and side entrances. Half the police were lined up on both sides of the front entrance, so that worshipers had to first walk through a virtual gauntlet of uniforms before entering the mosque compound. Zhang reminded me repeatedly while at the Jinan mosque that “some questions can be answered, but some can’t” — particularly those regarding government policies. Proselytizing is carefully monitored. And the Islamic Association of China, the religion’s highest authority in China responsible for regulating and managing Islamic institutions throughout the country, is government-affiliated; its stated aims include protecting “social stability” and “the unity of the motherland.”

A firmer separation between government and religion, as exists in the United States, largely commits authorities not to intervene in internal faith-based practices, even if those practices otherwise contravene widely accepted principles. That includes religious exemptions to laws outlawing discrimination against women, a type of religious freedom which can create isolated enclaves of pre-1950s gender roles. If state power could protect against religiously justified patriarchy, that’s a bargain that some on the receiving end might take.

But ordinary Chinese citizens don’t have a say in the matter, and depending on the government’s estimation of how much of a political threat they pose, they are presented with very different trade-offs. For Zhang, that means that she can practice Islam with the same freedoms — and the same moderate proscriptions — that belong to Chinese Muslim men. “The country has stipulated that we cannot force people to learn about Islam; we cannot grab their arm and drag them into the mosque,” she said. “We are only allowed to speak [and] to provide guidance.”

But for millions of Uighur women, it means being forced to choose between faith and career, freedom, even ethnic identity. That’s because regulations on religious practice there stem from top-down directives that can be tone-deaf, even paranoid. Muslim women in China get the best or the worst of state-mandated religion — and it all depends on where they live, and who they are. The restrictive policies are “ruthless and out of control,” said Barna. “And they’re just for Uighur people.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian traveled to China on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

Wendy Zhou contributed research and reporting.

Top Image Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images. Inline Image Credit: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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