Morocco's New Guiding Force

May 30, 2009

Author: Robin Shulman

Source: The Washington Post

Not long ago in the Moroccan city of Rabat, Nezha Nassi met an 18-year-old girl in prison on drug charges. The girl was afraid to leave prison because her parents said she was no longer welcome at home.

For months, Nassi counseled the girl, who seemed to bloom slowly and build an idea of the life she wanted. Nassi visited the girl's mother to persuade her to take her back, saying the girl would be worse off in the streets and that she had worked to give up her addiction. Nassi told the mother she had the girl's promise.

In Morocco, Nassi's word means something. That's because Nassi is a murshida, or guide, a female religious counselor recently trained by the country's Ministry of Religious Affairs to teach Islam and offer counseling in mosques, prisons, schools and hospitals -- even to make house calls to work through the most intimate family problems. Nassi is one of about 250 murshidas trained to occupy the same role as male imams, in every sense but leading prayer.

"This is spiritual, moral and physical counseling," said Nassi, whose soft face makes her look a decade younger than her 42 years, but who projects authority.

She recently visited Washington and New York with two other murshidas to meet with State Department officials and female religious leaders of various faiths in a trip sponsored by the Moroccan American Cultural Center. The State Department, in its annual report to Congress on counterterrorism issued in April, hailed the murshida program as a "pioneering" effort in Morocco's broad approach to spread tolerant practices of Islam.

The program began in 2006 in response to suicide bombers and other terrorist acts that wreaked havoc in the country. The thinking was that training murshidas would expand the number of government-trained emissaries to combat the appeal of violent interpretations of Islam.

At the same time, King Mohammed VI had pushed for reform in family law, giving women more rights in divorce and property, and the right to approve a husband's request to take additional wives. Seeking to be progressive on women's issues while avoiding alienating conservative Muslims, the government fostered the murshida program as a way to bring the new laws directly into homes and give them a religious imprimatur.