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Posts Tagged ‘GirlguidingUK’

I’ve seen a number of people do this as a meme on livejournal, but it seemed to me to be more about real life than my fannish life, so I’m putting it here instead.

2000: I took two out of three of my Year 9 SATS (the third one was the day of my grandfather’s funeral), and began 10 GCSEs. At October half term, my brother and I both had flu; he recovered fully, and I did not. After a raft of tests, I was diagnosed – quite speedily, as it goes for the condition – with Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and M.E.. I remember very little of the remainder of 2000.

2001: For most of the year, I was ill. I was never bed-bound – my parents were determined not to let me be – but at times I was house-bound to all intents and purposes. I had home tuition, with varying degrees of success, in some of the things I was meant to be studying for GCSE. We managed to carry on with English and Maths, but dropped German after a brief attempt, and delayed science. It must have been about this time that I first went to Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

2002: I took three GCSEs that summer – double English (A*A*) and Maths (A). We bought a desktop computer with an internet connection so that I could study with an online tutoring system from another two GCSEs. Essentially unlimited internet access also gave me a chance to enter community and what I later learnt to call fandom. I also tried to begin an A-level in English Literature. I was ill again that winter and didn’t complete it, but the seed was sown that I could attend school for just a few classes, supported by kind members of the local Quaker Meeting who were able to save me bus trips or taxi rides by offering lifts to and fro.

2003: I took two more GCSEs – double Science (AA). In the autumn (I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have arranged this by academic years, since they give my life shape), I began two A-levels, English Language and Literature, and Religious Studies. I literally chose the latter because it was downstairs; I think I would have preferred history, since I still harboured an ambition to be an archaeologist, but they taught it in upstairs classrooms. Science and maths were right out because they were on the other side of the school site. I studied hard at school, made a very few friends in my new year (having effectively dropped back), and began a distance learning A-level in Classical Civilisations. Around this time, my local Meeting privately published a volume of poetry, in which they included some of my work.

2004: I took two AS levels, beginning to settle into the January and June assessment which rules student life these days. My results were acceptable but not what I had hoped – an A and a B. I resolved to work harder. I was told that I needed three A-levels to go to Oxford. I resolved to finish the full A-level in Classical Civilisations rather than taking it as an AS as originally planned. I investigated the financial effects of going to university, realising for example that I could take a gap year and still be under the old rules (i.e. cheaper) if I applied quickly. I missed the Oxbridge entry deadline due to a PVFS relapse, but applied to Durham, Bristol, Nottingham, Cardiff, Bangor, and Lampeter. Only Durham rejected me.

2005: I took three A-levels, only a year behind. The scores were good (AAB; the B is the distance learning one) and accepted Nottingham’s offer. (I’d have loved to go to Lampeter, but without a car, the place in a trifle inaccessible, and everyone was still concerned that I might not be strong enough to study full-time.) I tried to decide what to do with my gap year. In the first instance, I spent several months on JobSeeker’s Allowance, and then a month in the run-up to Christmas working on the tills in an M&S food store. I decided to live on my savings for a while. Oh, and I changed my name – by use rather than deed poll at this stage. Confusion abounded!

2006: I spent the first part of the year doing voluntary work – I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery near York, and seven weeks with an ecumenical Christian community in Scotland, for example. I visited all of England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals. (The Church of England technically has 43 – the extra one is Peel.) I attended a course on Quakerism and Buddhism with Jim Pym and Andrew Burns which has lent both vocabulary and form to my spiritual life ever since (for example: stilling frog, metta meditation). I gained a lot of independence and a lot of experience with public transport. I also got a warrant to work with Brownie Guides and a Senior Section Camp Permit. In the autumn (that’s when everything starts!), I began a degree in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Nottingham. I enjoyed studying; I wrote ecstatic poetry about being on campus and in the library; I hated almost everyone else in my hall with a passion. (Drunken 18-year-olds do not mix well with people who need 8 hours’ sleep a night.) I went to sci-fi soc and made all the friends I needed: short-lived crush, long-term hug-buddy, and three future house-mates. My first week, I decided to continue my gap year spirit of exploration, and went with the Christian Union to an evangelical church. I spent the sermon wondering whether they could be any more wrong, and the lunch trying to work out how to come out as a non-believer. The next week, I went to the local, tiny, Quaker Meeting. “Have fun!” said the CU leader when he heard I was trying a different church; against my expectations, I did.

(I gave ministry, and was gently rebuking afterwards for not adding a footnote about the various possible interpretations of the word ‘God’. My kind of people.)

2007: At the end of my first year, a senior member of the Theology and Religious Studies department asked me where I thought I’d do my postgraduate work. He is to be commended on his foresight, although I think my marks were a clue. In the summer, I spent two weeks volunteering for a Quaker cafe during the Festivals – I did serious plays and religious talks the first week, heard Rabbi Lionel Blue as a turning point, and the second week went to stand-up and other comedy shows with a couple of friends from Nottingham. Back at university, I studied hard, coped with long-term hug-buddy moving to Leeds, joined the Nottingham Quaker Quest organisation team, had a brief fling with someone I met on a dating website, and got tendonitis in my right arm from typing too much. Oh, and they made me Chair of the TRS Staff-Student Feedback Committee.

2008: I went to the physiotherapist and went on the Pill; much complex medical nonsense resulted. I still managed to do pretty well in my exams, though. I’m sure I did something this summer, but other than getting involved with City of Sanctuary, I can’t remember what. By the time term started again, I was beginning to be frustrated with the lack of attention paid to a theme which was becoming more and more important to me: gender. I went to a Women’s Network meeting and managed to made contact with a PhD student. We founded a Feminist Reading Group which ran for the rest of the year and nurtured me a lot. Nottinghamshire and Derby Area Meeting welcomed me into membership.

2009: I finished my first degree – two dissertations, 100% attendance at seminars and lectures, three years of service to the Staff-Student Committee, and a First. I was quite pleased, though not so happy when they made me take my hat off to actually walk across the stage and graduate. I paid for a silly hat! I wear a hat all the time! Why do I have to have a ‘religious reason’ to wear it? What counts as a religious reason anyway? Answers to these questions were not forthcoming. They did at least get my name right. I spent a week volunteering with Oxford MENCAP, and as usual quite a lot of time at Brownie Pack Holiday and Guide Camp. I also attended Yearly Meeting Gathering at York, quite an amazing experience in many ways. Once again, the new has begun in the autumn: I started an MA in Gender, Sexuality, and Queer Theory with the University of Leeds; I changed my name by deed poll; I got a provisional driving license and starting learning to drive; I began to try and decide in earnest what my PhD should be about. (Suggestions which involve Wilde as well as feminism and Quakerism and theology welcomed!)

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I spend a fair amount of my spare time volunteering with GirlguidingUK, specifically as a Brownie Assistant Guider. In fact, I spent my Easter weekend at Pack Holiday with seven other leaders and eighteen girls.

I’ve been a member of Girlguiding since I joined the Brownies at age seven. I enjoyed Brownies, as far as I remember, and mostly enjoyed Guides, although my problems with other teenagers did not disappear when we were at Guides. It did give me real experience of leadership, though, and the sensation of being capable at all sorts of practical things. If I learnt it at Guides, I know I can do it: tie a reef knot, light a fire, pitch a tent, wire a plug, lead a prayer, work in a team, identify edible woodland plants… not all of it directly useful in my ordinary daily life, perhaps, but no more useless than the things I learnt at school that I couldn’t do: use an electric saw, make things in metal, appreciate mathematics, play netball. To this day, my involvement in Girlguiding gives me chances to feel useful, to feel needed, to feel and be seen as strong and capable and worthwhile. It gives me a validation as a person which I don’t get anywhere else; even my academic work (which is often well-regarded and gets high marks) doesn’t make me a useful member of society.

I hope that the girls and young women I work with now find the experiences they have through Girlguiding as empowering as I did. I do think that there is a value in spending some time in women-only groups, and Girlguiding is such a space which doesn’t have the explicit political agenda of a feminist discussion meeting or reading group, though I personally value those things as well; I fear that that political agenda keeps as many women away as it brings in, especially when they are at a young age. I also think that there’s a value in spending time in mixed groups: my balance was that I was in a comprehensive school and a single-gender youth group, but there are many other ways of creating that balance. (A feminist friend once argued seriously that taking children into single-gender groups would reinforce their gender roles. I would argue that it need not necessarily be so, because my experience is that single-gender groups allowed me to break out of my assigned cis-gender woman’s role, and mixed-gender groups were those in which I was, for example, forced to do the washing up while boys watched me and played with knives. That said, I’m sure there are cases – the Scout camp I once visited where the young boys spent all their time playing and the cooking and washing up, things we would have made girls of that age help with, were done by middle-aged women – where the single-gender space reinforces gender roles.)

Overall, then, I think that Girlguiding and its sister organisations have much to offer my society which is good and in line with my feminist ideals. However, I also think that some aspects of our actual practice could do with reform, and that there are elements of our history which are distinctly problematic. For starters, Scouting, Baden-Powell’s original movement from which Girlguiding as exists today in the UK has evolved, was both located in a colonialist mindset, and culturally appropriative in offensive ways. Scouting for Boys, the original (1908) handbook of the movement, is classist and racist as well as jingoistic (the edition I’ve linked to has an excellent introduction which covers those points in more depth than I am able to here). However, we don’t teach from that book today, and I am much more interested in today’s movement: not least because I cannot change the past, but I can potentially alter our actions in the present.

The symptoms of B-P’s ideas and appropriations are visible today. I take song lyrics and other material passed down by word of mouth or tradition to be especially illustrative, and it is especially difficult to change and question. The Brownie Story, the ‘foundational myth’ of the section for members of GirlguidingUK aged between 7 and 10, was updated recently, adding some extra characters (including a girl with a non-English name), and making it clear that we don’t actually expect children today to go off into the woods at night. The colonialist lyrics of the Gang Show theme tune*, however, remain (“we’re riding along on the crest of a wave… and the world is ours”).

* In that thread, note that the very next post after the lyrics, a joke from ‘Bernard’, makes clear something about the underlying assumptions of the social atmosphere in which it exists (e.g. a “loin-cloth clad foreign looking burly bloke” must be a slave).

There are also clearly offensive songs in the Girlguiding singing tradition. I’m very fond of a song called ‘Red Men’, having learnt it in my youth: “We’re the men of the Old Dun Cow- How! All of us are red men, feathers in our head men, down among the dead men (mime cutting throat), Pow-wow! Pow-wow!” (I hope that the offensiveness of this doesn’t need explanation, but if it does, the phrase ‘stereotyping of Native Americans’ is going to be key.) I have heard it said that this is ok, so long as you know where you’re singing it and with whom, and that you’re being slightly offensive. I suspect that this means that the speaker thinks it’s not something for which she’s going to be punished so long as those who hear it aren’t offended or are too young to understand why it’s problematic. That she won’t be punished does not, however, make the action morally right.

In the UK, though, we’re unlikely to have any potential members in the Native American community to drive away. The problem becomes more pressing when in an area with a strong Asian community you are singing songs like this (I give it in full, as it’s short and an extract wouldn’t convey the whole problem):

I live in an itsy-bitsy housie,
I live on the third-third floor,
I take in a big amount of washing,
Frillies on the panties ten cents more.
I like chow-chow better than pow-wow,
I like pretty girl, she likes me.
Way down Honga-Kong,
Bigga man-a come along,
Take away my pretty girl,
Poor Chinese.

I refuse to sing this song, though I’m currently struggling to come up with an age-appropriate explanation which I can give the Brownies about why. (For that matter, I haven’t yet managed to explain to my fellow leaders, who are still singing it.)

Why are there no British-Chinese Brownies in our Pack? The answer seems obvious.

If we did have them, though, I wonder if we would be able to deal with them appropriately. I met a British Afro-Caribbean Brownie once who was being told off for taking much longer than the other girls to colour in her pictures of people. After a few minutes watching her, I realised that it was because where the white girls felt that the colour of the white paper was just fine for everyone’s faces and hands, she was finding pens in different shades of brown and pink and colouring in every area of skin. Colourblindness, colour-carelessness, develops in white children at a very young age, and usually lasts throughout adulthood.

Only this weekend, I found myself asking a group of Brownies to prepare a Brownie’s Own, a short service usually including a little drama, a suitable song or two, and a prayer either of their own composition or chosen from a book. We have a few resources for this, which are both outdated (our songbook is Come and Praise, a fine work in its way but one which contains mostly songs they never sing at school any more), and religiously narrow: the two prayer books are called ‘Prayers for Children’ (on the twee side, and too young for Brownies), and ‘Hello Jesus’ (nicely done, age-appropriate, but unmistakably Christian). I did not feel comfortable handing any of those to the one Muslim girl who is currently in our group. (We wrote our own, with her full participation.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that GirlguidingUK has much to offer British society. (I suspect that offering it unchanged, perhaps at all, in other countries, especially former colonies, has a very different set of implications, in which I’m not well-versed.) Before we can really do that well and inclusively, though, we need to challenge some of the implicit structural and traditional racism which is silently embedded in the movement.

I’d like to end by noting that racism isn’t our only problem. We struggle to make it clear that it’s open to non-Christian members (though it is true non-Buddhist atheists and republicans cannot currently join without lying, as our Promise, the membership criterion, has us promise “to do my best to love my God” and “to serve the Queen and my country…”). We have not yet really addressed the issue of transgendered members, assuming in a haze of cissexual privilege that women just are people with female bodies. And we’re working on including girls and young women with disabilities.

(Tangent: I was once at a Girlguiding conference where we were asked on a questionaire what could be done to get more disabled members. The woman next to me suggested that we “take a hammer to the ones we have.”)

She was joking, but she was also onto part of an answer: this must be changed from the inside. Publicity campaigns won’t help if people are put off by what they find; and if they find something worthwhile, accepting, inclusive, useful, they will stay and bring their friends along too. I think I’ll start by editing my songbook and investigating multi-faith prayer books for children.

Edited 26/4/2009 to add: a very good paper on race in classrooms also happens to note that Brownies is restricted to white girls (page 6).

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