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.
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.