Middle East

The world's least likely Girl Guides

Sham doing arts and crafts with a younger member, both in uniform Image copyright Handout
Image caption Sham (left) joined the Girl Guides 10 years ago and has been going to meetings throughout the Syrian war

Sham thinks I should learn to milk a cow. Her new enthusiasm for farming bursts forth over a Skype call between London and Damascus, along with a loud and confident laugh.

She has been to visit a farm with her local Girl Guide group in Syria.

From Damascus and Hama to Aleppo and the seaside city of Latakia, through six years of war in which hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives and more than 12 million have been forced from their homes, the Girl Guides have continued.

'Sense of normality'

Women first started holding Guide meetings in Syria in the 1950s and they are being granted full membership of the movement's worldwide body this week.

The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (Wagggs) praised the Syria groups' "incredible work" at giving their more than 1,000 members "a sense of normality" and "a safe space to play and make friends".

"Everyone thinks that we're all dying. Actually we are having a normal life," says Sham, a 22-year-old student who lives in Damascus, the capital.

That might seem incongruous - Damascus has been rocked by suicide bombings and air strikes and has seen battles between rebels and the government.

But in any war the intensity of conflict depends on where you are. In government-held Damascus, cafes and markets have stayed open against a backdrop of shelling, even as other cities have been destroyed, displaced families have been left destitute, and millions more people have left Syria altogether.

Living in a middle-class part of the capital, Sham knows how lucky she is.

Image copyright Handout
Image caption Girl Guide activities in Syria include singing songs, dancing, camping, and practical skills like first aid and changing tyres

"The war has taken its toll on my country, however, I am thankful it hasn't affected me in person," she says.

"Instead, it's made me stronger and helped me realise what I want to do in life. I know now that studying is the key to everything.

"Girl Guides has helped me no end and it's one of the reasons I consider myself successful.

"I am a part of the efforts of rebuilding Syria because I am a leader in the Scout movement."

Sham even went to Sudan earlier this year to train Girl Guides there in body confidence. Since she took part in the scheme, she has stopped wearing make up altogether and wants other girls to feel proud of their bodies.

Image copyright Handout
Image caption Sham and Rim went to Sudan to deliver the Free Being Me body confidence programme

While in the UK Guides have traditionally been associated with Christianity, Sham is a Sunni Muslim and says the members come from different religions and celebrate both Eid and Christmas together.

"No one would even ask" her religion, she says.

Girl Guides were banned in Syria in 1980 along with other youth organisations, as the ruling party tried to consolidate power.

One woman, Rim, had been a member since she was six years old and the movement meant so much to her, she flouted the ban to hold meetings in a local church.

Image copyright Handout
Image caption Rim (L) has been a member of Girl Guides since she was six years old

Girl Guides groups started to re-form in 2000 after the ban was lifted, and Rim is now a leader, a board member and a training co-ordinator. She says it has made her a "strong, confident woman" and she tries to pass that on to the girls in her charge by organising guest speakers including writers and businesswomen.

"Not only in Syria but in the Middle East women have not reached the position that they should be in yet," she says.

"The community still thinks that women cannot be decision makers or independent. It is hard to persuade people that even though I am a woman, I can still be a leader, a decision-maker and be able to create positive change.

"Girls are the key to our future. They are capable of amazing things."


Syria's Girl Guides Promise:

"On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to help others and to obey the Girl Guide law."

Image copyright Handout

Some of Rim's friends have died or had to leave, and she can no longer travel around the country to go hiking at the weekend as she used to.

When the Girl Guides in Syria go camping, they have to check with the army beforehand that the area around their campsite is safe.

And in such a divided country, it is difficult to be as inclusive as they might like. They operate in government-held areas. Their events use the national flag of Syria, the anthem and the national motto - contentious symbols all.

Even the Syrian version of the promise - a pledge Girl Guides are invited to make when they join - mentions duty to one's country. It is not inconceivable that this would stop families who oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad from sending their daughters to meetings.

Rim says that is not the case and some parents who "object to" the government do send their children.

"The Guides and Scouts is a movement that is not political," she says.

"The promise is promising for the country and not for a specific government.

"It is for the country. It is for Syria."

Sham agrees: "We never talk about politics. It's open for everyone. Christians, Muslims, everyone."


A guide to Guides

  • Girl Guides are aged between five and 22
  • They started in 1909 in Britain as a girls' version of the Boy Scouts
  • The Damascus unit meets once a week in the winter and three times a week in the summer
  • Members can earn badges for new skills including learning an exercise, having an adventure or for learning facts
  • Guides wear a uniform
  • Associate members do not have voting rights at annual conferences of the movement; full members do
  • Along with Syria, groups in Aruba, Azerbaijan and the Palestinian territories will become full members this week

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