Morocco's New Guiding Force

Rabat, Morocco - 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.

The program is part of a worldwide movement to elevate the status of Muslim women scholars and leaders, said Daisy Khan, the New York-based founder of Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity. "There's a rising consciousness that we need to organize and institutionalize ourselves as sisters of other faiths have done before us," she said.

In most of the Muslim world, although women have served as informal spiritual leaders, official positions of religious power have been the preserve of men. But now in Turkey, hundreds of female preachers, known as vaizes, are working in state-run mosques, and women have also been appointed to lead Turks making the pilgrimage to Mecca. In Egypt, Al-Azhar University has approved the printing and distribution of the first Quranic interpretation written by a woman. From India to Syria, women are becoming muftis, authorized to issue fatwas, or religious decisions.

Morocco, a country of 34 million people, is poor, with double-digit unemployment in urban shantytowns and isolated rural villages. Young people are vulnerable to alcohol abuse, drugs, sniffing glue -- and religious extremism, the murshidas said.

The murshidas spend much of their time at the mosque, giving lectures to women, taking questions and offering counseling on personal problems. They also often visit hospitals and prisons. Sometimes they appear on television and radio programs and take calls from listeners.

People want to talk about marital problems, AIDS, rape, teen pregnancy. They come to them in crisis: The woman with cancer who had lost the will to live and wanted to quit treatment. The boy who had a fight with his father and ran away to a blacksmith shop where he found work.

Prerequisites for admission to the murshida program include an honors bachelor's degree and memorization of at least half of the Quran. The 45-week training includes courses in psychology, law, history, communication and religion -- the same coursework an imam goes through.

"I always dreamed of being a leader," Nassi said. She received her B.A. in Islamic studies from Mohammed V University in Rabat, then worked as an artist and volunteered in her local mosque. She was part of the first class of murshidas to graduate in 2006.

She often becomes close to those she counsels, including the 18-year-old drug user who had been cast out of her parents' house. She is proud of the impact she has had on her life. "After she was released, she went home," Nassi said.