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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

For the latest in our series on Faith in China, we turn now to Islam. China has an estimated 21 million Muslims who have developed their own set of Islamic practices with distinctly Chinese characteristics. The biggest difference is the development of independent female mosques with female imams, something that hasnt developed anywhere else in the world.

NPR's Louisa Lim has our story.

(Soundbite of chant)

LOUISA LIM: It is 5:50 in the morning and the Call to Prayer echoes from a mosque in Kaifeng. This city in Henan Province in central China has an Islamic enclave where Muslims have lived for more than a thousand years. Men and women scurry through the dark allies to the mosque.

Here in Wangjia Hutong, the women go to their own mosque, where Yao Baoxia leads prayers.

Imam YAO BAOXIA (Imam): (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: For 14 years, she's been a female imam, or an ahong, as theyre called here, in a word derived from Persian. She stands alongside the other women, not in front of them like a male imam would. But she says her role is the same as a male imam.

Imam BAOXIA: (Through Translator) The status is the same. Men and women are equal here, maybe because we are a socialist country.

LIM: She decided to become an imam after she was laid off from her job as a factory worker. She studied for four years; first under a female imam, then with a male imam, sitting alongside men studying to become imams. She sees her main role as teaching Islam.

Imam BAOXIA: (Through Translator) When people come to pray, sometimes they don't know how to recite the Quran, so female imams are teachers. We help people learn about Islam by studying one line at a time and we lead the prayers.

LIM: Im just being shown a couple of plaques, high up on the wall of the Wangjia Hutong Women's Mosque. And these plaques date back to the 19th century and they're used by scholars of proof of the fact that this is the oldest surviving women's mosque in China.

(Soundbite of children reciting the Quran)

LIM: Like other Chinese women's mosques, it began as a Quranic school for girls. These sprang up in the late 17th century here in central China. Then more than a hundred years ago, they morphed into women's mosques.

Eighty-three-year-old Tang Guiying says when she was a child the women's mosque was the only place a girl could go to get education.

Imam TANG GUIYING: (Through Translator) I didn't go to school when I was small. We were all too poor; none of us girls studied. But I came here to play and study. The old imam was very, very old. She was 80-something and she had bound feet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: She is sitting in the washroom as she talks. This is where women perform their ritual ablutions before prayer. This space and the female mosque itself doubles as a social center for these women, the heart of a community. In Kaifeng, there are 16 female mosques - a third the number of male mosques.

(Soundbite of wailing)

LIM: But there are things that female imams can't do. They can't, for instance, lead funeral rituals or wash male corpses. At this funeral in Zhengzhou, mourners wail as they carry the coffin through the streets. But no female imams are participating.

Here, most people do support a female mosque but there's some resistance closer to China's border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Shui Jingjun from Henan Academy of Social Sciences has been studying women's mosques, a phenomenon she says is unique to China.

Dr. SHUI JINGJUN (Sociologist, Henan Academy of Social Sciences): (Through Translator) Historically in northwestern China, when there were no female mosques. There was resistance because they saw that building female mosques was against the rules of the religion. There are some voices who still say that. But in central China and most provinces, people think it's a good innovation for Islam.

(Soundbite of chanting)

LIM: The practice is spreading, with female mosques being established in the northwest in the past decade. Female imams in China have licenses to practice, issued by the Islamic Association of China, a state-controlled body that regulates Islamic practices in the country.

This is part of the anomaly that is religion in China. The atheist Chinese authorities are endorsing a practice some Muslims may find unacceptable. But others believe that when it comes to female imams, China is leading the way.

Here's Guo Baoguang, chairman of Kaifeng's Islamic Association.

Mr. GUO BAOGUANG (Chairman, Islamic Association): (Through Translator) Given the fast development of China's economy and as its political status rises, I think Chinese Islam will become more important in the Islamic world. The developments Chinese Islam has made, like the role played by women, will be more accepted by Muslims elsewhere in the world.

(Soundbite of running water)

LIM: In the female mosques, most of the faithful are elderly. Young women with families often don't have the time to worship, especially given the lengthy ablution rituals several times a day.

Third-generation Imam Sun Chengying worries about the future.

Imam SUN CHENGYING: (Through Translator) I haven't had any students since 1996. Women don't want be imams anymore because the salaries in the mosques are too low. No one is willing to do it.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Female imams sometimes earn as little as $40 a month, a third what they could earn in other jobs. Younger women need more to help support their families. And so it appears the future of female imams in China is threatened, not by the state, not by resistance from inside Islam, but by the forces of market economics.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

NORRIS: And you can find an audio slideshow of China's female mosques at NPR.org.

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