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Armijo, Jacqueline . "China." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 8, 2021. <>.


Armijo, Jacqueline . "China." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 8, 2021).


In the early twenty-first century China's Muslim population is estimated to be between 20 and 35 million, spread throughout the country. Of China's fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minority groups, ten are predominantly Muslim. The largest of these groups are the Uighur and the Hui, each having a population of approximately 10 million. The Uighur live primarily in Xinjiang Province, in northwest China, and are a Turkic-speaking people who settled in that region over a thousand years ago. The Hui live in every region of the country and are the descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Middle East and Central Asia who settled in China during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1260–1368). These early settlers were either recruited or forcibly relocated by the Mongols who needed their assistance in establishing their empire and rule of China. They included craftsmen, astronomers, architects, medical doctors, hydraulic engineers, military technicians, artists, bureaucrats, linguists, and more. Primarily male, some were allowed to bring their families with them, but most settled down and married Chinese women. Children born to Muslim fathers were raised as Muslims, and daughters were expected to marry other Muslims. In addition, Muslim families would often adopt children abandoned by Han Chinese families during periods of famine or hardship.

Over the centuries, Muslim communities in China both flourished and experienced periods of state-sponsored persecution. During much of their history, Chinese Muslims were also cut off from the rest of the Islamic world. As a result, a very strong tradition of Islamic education developed in China. Women played a very active role in ensuring that Islamic knowledge was maintained over the generations. In the mid-nineteenth century in central China, an Islamic school for women was established in Kaifeng, Henan Province, to meet the growing demand for advanced religious studies for women. The school later developed into a women's mosque and became a model that was followed throughout much of central China and into Beijing as well.

In recent decades, with the revival of Islamic education in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Islamic schools have been set up throughout the country (except Xinjiang). Classes are offered in pre-schools, during the summer for schoolchildren, during the day for the elderly and retired, and in the evenings and weekends for working adults. Independent Islamic colleges have also been established that train teachers and translators. Many of the young women graduates volunteer to help set up schools for girls in China's more remote and impoverished regions. Since the early 1990s, young people, both men and women, pursued more advanced studies at international centers of Islamic learning around the world, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, and for men only in Saudi Arabia. Upon their return from studies overseas, most women graduates become teachers at Islamic schools. Many of these private schools are based in mosques, and many of them also offer charitable activities run by women.

Unfortunately, research on Muslim women in China is quite limited. However, to shed light on how one Muslim woman made a huge difference in the lives of countless deaf and blind students and their teachers in Yunnan Province, one should consider the case of Ma Qiongxuan. In 1993 Chinese sign language was being taught at the Kunming School for the Deaf and Blind with an extraordinarily positive attitude by all of the teachers at that institution. The enthusiasm and dedication of the teachers were remarkable. At the time in China, all college students received government scholarships and upon graduation were assigned jobs anywhere in the country where their skills were needed. Refusing to accept a job placement was not a possibility. Teachers at the Kunming school were recruited from the local teachers’ college; however, Principal Ma had negotiated an arrangement with local education officials guaranteeing that any graduating student who did not want to teach at the school would be given another assignment without any negative consequences. In addition, after completing one year of teaching at the school, all new teachers were asked if they wished to continue at Kunming or be reassigned. Ma had taken an extraordinary and unprecedented initiative to ensure that her teachers were dedicated to the school's children, children who needed more care. That she was able to convince local government officials to go along with her policy reflects both her determination to ensure that the blind and deaf students received the best education possible from teachers committed to their education, and the respect she must have engendered in the community.

It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 40 million fewer women than men in China and thus 40 million men with no hope of ever marrying. This social demographic catastrophe is the result of female infanticide, selective abortions, and the preferential treatment of boys. In addition, trafficking in women for forced sex work and forced marriage is a major problem throughout the country, and China also has the highest rate of female suicide in the world, and is the only place where female suicides outnumber male suicides.

In the early twenty-first century Muslim women in China appear to be less vulnerable to these forms of abuse than other Chinese women. To begin with, female infanticide is an anathema to most Muslim societies. As a result, Muslim communities do not suffer from the severe shortages that face most of the rest of the society. In addition, when Chinese Muslim women leave their villages to find work in the cities, they are able to use the networks linking Chinese Muslims throughout the country, and are thus less vulnerable to the traffickers who prey on young women arriving in cities.

However, this is not to suggest that Muslim women in China are not susceptible to regional cultural values regarding women and gender roles. Gender relations among the many different Muslim ethnic groups in China vary widely depending on both the region and the dominant local culture. In most of China, Muslims live near Han Chinese. Northwest China is known for being extremely patriarchal, with men wielding a large amount of power within households. Muslims from other parts of China are often shocked at how women are treated in that area.

For example, women are often forbidden from entering mosques in much of northwest China. In southwest China, however, almost all mosques include a section for women in the main prayer hall right next to the men (there is usually a half-curtain dividing the room). In central China, women have their own mosques. Recently, the practice of women imams (known as nu ahong in Chinese) and women's mosques in China have gained increasing amounts of attention within the nation as well as worldwide. Young women from areas where women's mosques are common have moved to other regions of China and set up women's mosques there. In addition, Chinese Muslim women from other regions of China have traveled to central China and become familiar with this practice. According to Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, the practice of women's mosques and women ahong in China may represent a rare surviving example of a practice that might have been common in the early years of Islam. One Chinese Muslim leader even went so far as to say the rest of the Muslim world may have something important to learn from this Chinese Muslim tradition.


  • Allés, Elisabeth. “Chinese Muslim Women: From Autonomy to Dependence.” In Devout Societies vs. Impious States? Transmitting Islamic Learning in Russia, Central Asia and China, through the Twentieth Century, edited by Stephane Dudoignon, pp. 91–103. Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2004.
  • Armijo, Jacqueline. “Narratives Engendering Survival: How the Muslims of Southwest China Remember the Massacres of 1873.” Traces: An International Journal of Comparative Cultural Theory 2 (2001): 293–329.
  • Armijo, Jacqueline. “A Unique Heritage of Leadership: Muslim Women in China.” Special 10th Anniversary Edition: Women in Power. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 10, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2009): 37–45.
  • Jaschok, Maria, and Hau Ming Vicky Chan. “Education, Gender and Islam in China: The Place of Religious Education in Challenging and Sustaining ‘Undisputed’ Traditions among Chinese Muslim Women.” International Journal of Educational Development 29 (2009): 487–494.
  • Jaschok, Maria, and Shui Jingjun. The History of Women's Mosques in Chinese Islam: A Mosque of Their Own. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000.

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