CAIRO - Built centuries ago as religious schools for China Muslim women, several mosques in the northwestern provinces of the large Asian country have turned into female only mosques, offering women a unique opportunity to develop their religious knowledge.
"I feel so blessed to have a mosque I can visit, Ma Guifang, 80-year-old Muslim woman, told China Daily on Tuesday, November 20.
Not many female Muslims enjoy such a privilege," she said.
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.
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.
Though being attended by women only worshippers, a female imam does not lead prayers which are usually piped into the room through a loudspeaker wired to a traditional mosque 100 meters away.
Yet, the province's Muslim women are proud of being able to take care of their mosque.
Ma Lan, the 46-year-old caretaker, rises at 4 am to shovel coal into the boiler to ensure a good supply of hot water for the washing ritual.
She even cooperates with other female worshippers in keeping the mosque clean and ready for daily prayers and Friday congregation, which gathers about 150 worshippers.
"Women do all the work here, no matter how physical it gets," she said.
The mosque is financed solely by donations from female worshippers and visitors as well.
"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."
According to official data, China has 20 million Muslims, most of them are concentrated in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai regions and provinces.
Unofficially, Muslim groups say the number is even higher, stating that there are from 65-100 million Muslims in China up to 7.5 percent of the population.
In general, during congregational prayer, women may not lead men but may lead other women, which is the case of females leading prayers in female only mosques in China.
In Islam, the majority of jurists maintain that a woman is allowed to lead her fellow sisters in congregational prayer if there is no man to lead the congregation.
Acknowledging the role of female mosques in China, Chinese Muslims praised its efforts in education Muslims about their faith.
"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.
"But one thing for sure is that women's mosques can provide them with a better level of education, which Islam greatly encourages."
Wang Yuming, director of Lanzhou's Xihu mosque, which also runs a school for women, agrees.
"Muslims care about education for women because we believe they are the lighthouse of the family," he said
Their influence helps to keep our society stable.
The school costs the mosque about 500,000 yuan every year, but Wang believes it's worth the cost.
"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.
Studying at the school for five years, Ma Lanying, 76, said that learning is a lifelong activity for Muslims.
"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.
Determined to change her life, 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," said Ma.
I didn't have time when I was working and now I have a lot catching up to do.