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Gao Li discusses issues with other students at the school for women at Xihu mosque in Lanzhou, Gansu province. Zou Hong / China Daily
Ma Xuelan prays at a friend's home in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. Photos by Zou Hong / China Daily
Above: Ma Guifang, 80, has been to the Lulan women's mosque in Lanzhou every day for the past two decades. Right: Inside the prayer hall of the Lulan women's mosque.
Phenomenon unique to China offers a special place for religious worship, Cui Jia reports in Lanzhou.
Editor's note: This is the fourth in a regular series of reports brought together under the banner "Lost Horizons", which aims to show life in the less-reported areas of the country and to give a voice to those whose words often go unheard. Slideshows and video footage are also available at www.chinadaily.com.cn/video
It was still dark at 6:25 am on a late October morning in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. Carefully gripping the handrail, Ma Guifang, 80, slowly climbed the stairs to the prayer hall on the second floor of Lulan women's mosque for morning prayers, her aching knees protesting at the ascent.
For the past 20 years, the elderly lady from the Hui ethnic group has been attending this women-only mosque, a phenomenon unique to China.
"I feel so blessed to have a mosque I can visit. Not many female Muslims enjoy such a privilege," she said.
Lulan women's mosque was built in 1956 by a group of female Muslims who had relocated to Lanzhou from Henan province in central China.
Muslim schools for women enjoy a long history in China, having first been established during the latter half of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They developed into women-only mosques, presided over by female imams, during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The practice of female imams quickly spread within China's Muslim groups, according to Shui Jingjun, a researcher at the Henan Academy of Social Sciences, who published a book on the history of women's mosques in China in 2002.
Women's mosques soon began to proliferate in China's central plains, mainly in the provinces of Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Anhui. In the northwestern provinces of Qinghai and Gansu and the Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, the public participation of women in ritual and leadership is much more restricted, so there are fewer examples of mosques such as this in those areas, added Shui. For example, Lulan is the only women's mosque in Lanzhou, but there are 19 in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province.
There are no reliable statistics about the total number of women's mosques in China because they are all affiliated with traditional places of worship, according to the China Islamic Association.
A few minutes after Ma took off her shoes and entered the hall, the prayers began. Although a female imam stood in the hall, the prayers were piped into the room through a loudspeaker wired to a traditional mosque 100 meters away. China's female imams are not equal to male prayer leaders, so they are disbarred from leading the daily prayers that are considered some of the most important daily obligations for followers of the faith. The entrance to the women's mosque is hidden away in a small alley.
"Only China has women's mosques, but this is not a common practice among Chinese Muslims," said Jin Rubin, secretary-general of the China Islamic Association. He added that the restrictions on female imams reciting prayers mean that most women-only mosques are regarded as adjuncts of male establishments.
"The association neither promotes nor condemns women-only mosques because while some people believe they represent greater equality for women, some still hold to the conservative line of thought," said Jin. "But one thing for sure is that women's mosques can provide them with a better level of education, which Islam greatly encourages."
The Lulan mosque was reconstructed on the original site in 1998, but now faces relocation. The two-story building, topped with the traditional crescent, is one of the very few old buildings still standing in the area. Many of the old blocks have been torn down to make way for modern apartments and office blocks.
While the Quran was being chanted upstairs, against the background noise from a nearby construction site, Ma Lan, the caretaker, began to clean the small bathroom downstairs, where worshippers perform the pre-prayer ritual of washing their faces, hands and feet. Had she not been menstruating, Ma Lan would have been upstairs with the three females worshippers.
Serving in a women's mosque was a long-term ambition for the 46-year-old. She quit her job in nearby Ningxia and moved to Lanzhou, home to 1.66 million Muslims, in 2006. During the winter, she rises at 4 am to shovel coal into the boiler to ensure a good supply of hot water for the washing ritual. "Women do all the work here, no matter how physical it gets," she said.
After prayers, Ma Guifang came down the stairs to ask Ma Lan if the large pile of coal stored in the middle of courtyard would be enough to last the entire winter. If not, she would like to make another donation. The mosque is financed solely by donations from female worshippers and visitors.
"We receive about 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($321 to $481) a month," said Tao Jinling, the imam, pointing at the list of donors and how much they gave. "Around 20 to 30 people come to the mosque every day. The number rises to around 150 during the Juma prayers on Friday."
Most of the women who worship at Lulan are aged around 60, but some are 90. "Young people can't come because they have jobs and middle-aged women have to stay at home and take care of their families," Tao explained.
Although Ma Ashe had known about Lulan for a long time, she only began to visit this year. "Both of my children started work this year, so I have time to come to the mosque. The children are very supportive," said the 46-year-old housewife. "They are too busy working to perform all five prayers every day, let alone attend the mosque."
Tao first came to Lulan as a student in 1991. Four years later, she graduated and became an imam. In addition to her role as the mosque's spiritual leader, the 40-year-old is also the accountant and is responsible for all the donations.
Tao believes the women's mosque is a symbol of development. "It also acts as a community center for female Muslims, a place where they can talk about their problems. I hope more people will support women's mosques and I think more should be built," she said, while taking off her imam's gown after prayers.
At the moment, Tao's main priority is to negotiate the plan for the mosque's relocation with the developer. "We don't want to move too far from here. We want the people who live nearby to be able to continue to visit us. They are part of the tradition."
"Muslims care about education for women because we believe they are the lighthouse of the family. Their influence helps to keep our society stable," said Wang Yuming, director of Lanzhou's Xihu mosque, which also runs a school for women.
The school is located at the side of the prayer hall for men. It has more than 200 students, the classes are free and anyone is welcome, as long as they are aged 16 or older. Many of the students have reached retirement age.
The school has no such thing as graduation, because students are allowed to stay as long as they want. Deng Xiulan, 72, has been a student since 2005 when the former Arabic learning center was converted into a school for women. "There are always new things to learn. Coming to the school has become a part of my life," she said.
The school costs the mosque about 500,000 yuan every year, but Wang believes it's worth every penny. "In addition to teaching the women about the Quran and Islam, we also teach them basic math and urge them to tell their children to stay away from drugs," he said. "Female Muslims deserve a decent level of education and the mosque is the best place to provide that.
"Now that winter has come, we have to make sure the classrooms are warm enough to allow elderly students with arthritis to sit through the classes without pain," said Wang, as he conducted his daily round of the school at 8:30 am as classes began.
There are nine classes in the school. Every classroom is decorated with flowers and some have posters of Al-Azhar University in Egypt - the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning - hanging on the walls. The school has about 100 students.
"We have nine teachers. They teach the seniors the Quran. The juniors begin by learning Arabic characters," said Zhang Chunxiu, the principal.
A lifelong activity
For Muslims, learning is a lifelong activity, said Ma Lanying, 76, who has studied at the school for five years. She is now in the senior class. "I feel so proud that I can understand the Quran and know exactly what the prayers mean," said Ma, who walks 45 minutes to school every weekday.
An Hongmei is Ma's teacher. Before each class, she likes to discuss global current affairs, such as recent events in Syria and Egypt. "I want my students to know how precious peace is," she explained.
She believes that the more the economy develops, the more people will pay attention to education and the school's growth is an example of that.
But it's a huge challenge to teach a group of retired women a new language, said An. "There are no shortcuts, the students have to patiently repeat words or sentences time after time, but their determination is very impressive. I wish young people could see this."
In addition, the mothers can teach their children at home, so knowledge of Islam can be passed on to the younger generation, she added.
Ma Aizheng, who worked as a nurse before she retired, said she makes time to study at home in the afternoon after classes finish at 11:30 am. "Studying the Quran has become a spiritual support for me. I didn't have time when I was working and now I have a lot catching up to do," said Ma, who has introduced some of her friends to the school.
The teachers receive just 600 to 700 yuan as a monthly allowance. "Wherever they go, they could earn much higher wages. They don't work here for the money, it's about devotion."
Ma Xuelan, 26, has been teaching at Xihu for four years, since she graduated from a women's school in Lanzhou run by Xiguan mosque. She said teaching makes her feel fulfilled and happy. "I am their teacher in class and they are my teachers after class," she said of her senior students.
Little did Ma know, but some of the students in her class have discovered another "teacher". Bai Jilan bought a copy of the Quran complete with a "talking pen", an mp3 player that stores audio files and can recognize and recite phrases from the Quran in Arabic or Mandarin, depending on which sentence is highlighted.
The high-tech device has become the center of attention during breaks and everyone wants to try it out, including Wang. "Everything needs to keep up with the times, including Islam," he said.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Xue Zhaohua contributed to this story.
Tang Li, 30, teaches Quranic chanting at the school for women at Xihu mosque in Lanzhou.
Brightly dressed Muslim women in Lanzhou.
(China Daily 11/20/2012 page6)