Muslim 'world citizen' leads Girl Guides in Winnipeg

A Winnipeg woman who has been described as a "world citizen" because of the number of places she has lived in is a leader for Girl Guides in the city.

Born in India and raised in Dubai, Tasneem Vali lived in Chicago and Pakistan before moving to Winnipeg

Tasneem Vali leads Girl Guides groups in Winnipeg, and two of her daughters are also involved in the organization. (Terry MacLeod/CBC)

A Winnipeg woman who has been described as a "world citizen" because of the number of places she has lived is leading groups of Girl Guides in the city.

Born in India and raised in Dubai, Tasneem Vali lived in Chicago and Pakistan before moving to Winnipeg, where she is a leader for Girl Guides in the Dalhousie neighbourhood in the south part of the city.

Vali is Muslim, but for elementary and high school, she studied at Catholic institutions and attended the University of Detroit, a Jesuit school.

She spoke to CBC's Terry MacLeod about her life and how it helps her lead in an organization that once required members to make a "promise" that includes a reference to God.

What got you involved in Girl Guides in the first place?

When I was in high school in Dubai we had a teacher who started a Girl Guide unit. It was an honour to be in that unit because your grades had to be good and you were chosen to be in that unit. When you think of Girl Guides, you think campfire and songs and tenting. Dubai is like, 50 C, so we were 50 C with a campfire and we're sweating but not one person wanted to leave. We were there for an hour singing songs and it was amazing and it just got me hooked.

When I got here to Winnipeg, I got involved. I live opposite a church that has Girl Guides and I would see every Tuesday and Thursday these little girls going in and I'm like, 'Oh, my God. This must be like, the most amazing church on earth. They've got kids going into church here regularly,' and I found out there were Girl Guides there.

What do you do with the Girl Guides here?

I'm a Brownie leader. I was a Spark leader for two years. So, the Brownies are seven, eight years old and we do have programming that we do. So, depending on what badge we're working on — we have a science badge, we have an environment, the world around us — they're called keys. So, that's what we do: key to me, key to Brownie, key to the community. So, just a few days back we went to the Humane Society just to get the girls to see how animals need as much care as humans do.

This morning you're wearing a blue outfit, a blue that's almost the colour of the Girl Guides' blue hijab. Do you wear the hijab at Brownie meetings?

Yes, I do. Sometimes during the meetings because it is all women and all girls I do take the hijab off. Like, when we go camping, we're in an area that's secluded, there is nobody there, so I take the hijab off. The first time the girls were like, 'Oh, we've never seen your hair,' and now they're just used to it. You know, it's not something to be talked about. There's more interesting things.

What if you're camping and a man, like a ranger comes up?

Oh, that was so funny. So, we were at Birds Hill about two years ago camping and there were a whole bunch of units with us. So, there was a Girl Guide unit, other Brownie units. I had my hijab off and two park rangers came to turn the electricity on so the other leaders were like, 'Oh, my god. There's a man!" and [the girls] came and stood right in front of me, kind of surrounded me so I would have enough time to wrap my hijab on. It was just so natural. I think once you connect with somebody, you share the same interest, it's just natural, it's not something different.

You have daughters who are guides, correct?

I have a guide and I have a Brownie.

Are there Muslim girls in your group?

There was one I think a year ago or so but no, there aren't. Just my daughters.

And the hijab for them is a non-issue generally?

It's not at all [an issue].

And the parents?

Parents, you know what, I did ask a couple of parents and they're like, 'Yeah, no. We don't care.'

I understand they trust you so much they've given you the key to the church.

Yes, they have. I have to go in first to open up. I go usually 10 minutes before the meeting to set up so yes, I do have the key [laughs].

What do you do about the Girl Guides' promise? Girls become guides by making their promise. Each country has its own but there's a reference to God or to your religion.

The Girl Guide promise is, 'God and Canada.' So, it's God. God is my god, your god, it doesn't matter. And then Canada, so we're faithful to God and Canada.

[Editor's note: the Girl Guide promise in Canada was rewritten in 2010 and no longer contains a reference to God. Instead, Guides promise "To be true to myself, my beliefs, and Canada."]

How many places have you lived? You're a trained architect, which is another amazing thing about you. So, you've lived all over the place, right?

I was born in India and when I was little, I moved to Dubai. So, I grew up there. Then I went to university in Detroit, the University of Detroit.

So, you went to a Jesuit university?

I went to a Jesuit university. I went to Catholic elementary school, and then I went to Catholic high school, and then I went to a Jesuit university. And my mom went to a Catholic school as well, in India.

You're a world citizen.

Yes, and I was in the choir, too. Until they decided that I couldn't sing at all [laughs]. And then I lived in Chicago for about nine years and then we moved to Pakistan for about 10 years and now in Winnipeg. We lived in Toronto for a year as well.

What brought you to Winnipeg?

Winnie the Pooh. How can you not move here when this is where Winnie the Pooh was?

I wanted a place where my kids could grow up, where it had everything. So, it has the WAG and it has the museums and it has culture. It has everything and yet it's not too big, which I like.

Girl Guide cookie season is coming up.

So, we have two cookie seasons that we have. Fall and spring, so spring cookies are arriving March 15 and Girl Guides will be selling cookies at Sobeys on Killarney and Pembina and the Superstore on Bison April second and April third, the Saturday and the Sunday.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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