Batken, Kyrgyzstan, 18 March 2005 (RFE/RL) — Tursunai attends fifth grade in a village school in Kyrgyzstan’s southwestern Batken Province. But during school holidays, she is sent to a madrasah — a religious school — in Batken, the provincial capital.
The madrasah is a small, ginger-colored house surrounded by fruit trees that sits next to the city’s grand mosque. There are several rooms inside the madrasah. The floor in the entrance room is covered with shabby carpets. Students sit on the floor, eat, and do homework on a low table. Rows of thick books in Arabic scripts line the shelves.
The imam of the grand mosque, Apasov Moldokojo Ajy, says the students don’t learn the Arabic language but only recite religious readings in the language. He says the books in Arabic provide what he calls a “proper ambience” for learning.
Tursunai looks much younger than her 11 years. She struggles to correctly write her name but fluently recites Islamic texts.
Tursunai is one of half a dozen girls attending the madrasah who says she wants to become a buatin, or a female imam.
Although her father is himself an imam, Tursanai’s dream to follow in his footsteps will be difficult to fulfill. Traditionally, there is no place in Islam for women to lead prayers in mosques. Tursunai’s teacher, Kunduz Isakova, is clear about this.
“According to Shari’a and to Islam in general, a woman cannot be an imam. And it is not a woman’s goal to be an imam. The main aim of coming here is to know oneself, to come to know what kind of a human being a person is,” Isakova said.
A graduate of the Islamic University in Bishkek, Isakova is a self-confident young woman who readily gives her interpretation of the complex issue of the place of women in Islam. She sees her mission mainly to teach students to read the Quran, and to instruct Muslim girls to behave properly:
“Our first aim here is to teach young girls proper behavior. They study Shari’a rules about prayers. Proper behavior is taught with the help of the hadith [sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad] and the meaning of the Koran. Mainly the Koran is taught,” Isakova said.
Isakova, who is in her early 20s, wears a long dark gray coat and a hijab, a scarf covering her head and most of her face. Most of her teenaged pupils are dressed similarly.
The grand mufti of Kyrgyzstan, Kimsanbai Ajy, is also clear that women cannot be imams.
“As for being an imam, during the prayers, women cannot come in front during the prayers and be an imam. Sharia is very specific about this,” Kimsanbai Ajy said.
But Muslims might be surprised to learn that there is one country where women are permitted to serve as imams. The Islamic Association of China has granted licenses to a few dozen female imams in four provinces. The female imams preach in mosques that only serve women.
Felix Corley is an editor at the Forum 18 online news agency, which specializes in reporting on religious freedom issues. He told RFE/RL about one female imam — a 40-year-old mother and wife in China’s northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
“She is the imam of a mosque which caters exclusively for other women. But it is attached to a mosque for men. There are a few of these imams who do, in fact, allow men to take part in prayers. But generally speaking, they are mosques led by women for women, and they’re not overseen by male religious leaders. They are independent,” Corley said.
Corley says the concept is unique to China. “Most Muslims around the world would be horrified at the sheer idea of this,” he said.
Corley said it is difficult to clarify how female imams came into existence in China.
“At the moment, it is not really very clear if the impetus has come from the communist authorities, or whether this is something that has developed because religious communities in China are so isolated — and deliberately so. The government has tried to prevent religious communities from having international contact,” Corley said.
Back in Kyrgyzstan, Tursunai, like her older schoolmates at the madrasah, wants to pursue her religious studies. But it is unlikely she will have the chance to do so at a proper religious school.
In the well-known Islamic learning centers in Central Asia, such as in Bukhara and Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, only boys are accepted.
© 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.