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.
NPR also reports:
This city in central China's Henan province has an Islamic enclave, where Muslims have lived for more than 1,000 years.
In an alleyway called Wangjia hutong, women go to their own mosque, where Yao Baoxia leads prayers. For 14 years, Yao has been a female imam, or ahong as they are called here, a word derived from Persian.
As she leads the service, Yao stands alongside the other women, not in front of them as a male imam would. But she says her role is the same as a male imam.
"The status is the same," Yao says confidently. "Men and women are equal here, maybe because we are a socialist country."
China has an estimated 21 million Muslims, who have developed their own set of Islamic practices with Chinese characteristics. The biggest difference is the development of independent women's mosques with female imams, something scholars who have researched the issue say is unique to China.
Yao studied to become an imam for four years, after being laid off from her job as a factory worker. First she studied under a female imam, then with a male imam alongside male students.
Her main role is as a teacher, she says.
"When people come to pray, they don't know how to chant the Quran, so my job is teaching people about Islam, helping them to study one line at a time and leading the prayers," she says.
However there is still opposition against this more Progressive breed of Islam wherever Fundamentalist Islam holds influence:
Opposition Still Exists To Women's Roles
In central China, most Muslims support the female mosques, but there is some resistance closer to China's border with Pakistan and Afghanistan, closer to the harder-line Wahhabi and Salafi influences.
"Historically in northwestern China, there were no female mosques," says Shui, the researcher. "There was resistance because people thought that building female mosques was against the rules of religion. But in central China and most provinces, people think it's a good innovation for Islam."
In the past decade, some women's mosques have been established in northwest China. The phenomenon appears to be spreading, helped politically by the Islamic Association of China, a state-controlled body that regulates Islam and issues licenses to practice to male and female imams alike.
See also: China's Female Imams and NPR: Female Imams Blaze Trail Amid China's Muslims.