Female Imams in China; Old Grievances Resurface in Indonesia

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Female Imams in China; Old Grievances Resurface in Indonesia


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


China's Ningxia Autonomous Region, home to a third of the Muslim Hui minority people, now has 30 female imams, according to a report in the People's Daily. The figure appears in a story that leads off by describing the achievement of Jin Meihua, who now preaches in a small courtyard in the Wunan Mosque in Wuzhong city. People's Daily recounts:

"The 40-year-old Jin is among the first batch of female imams in the region. 'My wish is to deliver virtue,' said Jin.

"Born into a religious family, she studied the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam, under her father when she was very young. But, as a female, she could not go to mosques like her father. To help more women like herself to have the opportunity to learn the Qur'an and to pray in mosques, Jin decided to become an imam.

"Last year, she passed the exam held by the Ningxia Islamic Association, and became one of eight female imams in Wuzhong."

Like other female imams, Jin preaches to other women. Around 50 women regularly come to hear her speak and she has five students. "Because of illiteracy," Jin explained, "many women here feel frightened by the modern changes and developments in society. What I can do is to help them reject unhealthy thoughts, and to do good things under the influence of the Qur'an."

The article reports that some of the female imams preach in women-only mosques, and notes that most of the first group of female imams come from traditional religious families. There are also women imams in Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces.

In official policy since the communist government was established in 1949, the Hui have been regarded as one of China's national minorities. In Ningxia and parts of neighboring Gansu, the Muslim population does indeed seem to have a national character-although, after centuries of intermarriage and cultural influence, it is now essentially their religious beliefs and observances that distinguish them from the majority Han Chinese. What is less convincing is the common application of the term "Hui" to Muslim Chinese in widely seperatcd areas, regardless of their varied histories and dialects.

The Hui are not to be confused with other Muslim minorities, such as the Uygurs of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in northwest China, who can more readily be identified as national groupings, as they still speak a distinct language and have cultural practices (not necessarily arising out of their religious faith) that distinguish them from the majority Chinese population.

Tanjung Priok Wounds Still Unhealed

Indonesian army captain Sutrisno Mascung was sentenced to three years in prison in August for his part in a massacre of Muslim protesters in Jakarta 20 years earlier. Eleven subordinates received sentences of two years each. All 12 immediately lodged appeals. Human rights groups were dissatisfied both with these verdicts and with the authorities' handling of the issue of a whole: it seemed to be the latest example of a case in which minimal punishment was handed out to lowranking human rights violators, while those who gave the orders escaped justice altogether. This happened when some of those responsible for the devastation of East Timor in 1999 were brought to trial, and when the authorities have felt obliged to take action on reports of military atrocities in the rebellious regions of Aceh and West Papua.

In this instance, the court cleared Maj. Gen. Sriyanto Muntarsan, now head of the elite special forces unit Kopassus, of ordering troops to open fire on demonstrators. The head of Jakarta's military police at the time of the massacre, former Maj. Gen. Pranowo, was found not guilty of failing to stop the torture of Muslim activists held in custody after the incident.

The 1984 massacre took place at a time when the Suharto regime was seeking to eliminate any potential focus of opposition in Indonesia. It had come to power in 1965 amid a bloody purge of Communist Party of Indonesia members and those said to be sympathetic to Marxist ideology. …

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