Monday, July 9, 2012

So Long God and Liz: The New Australian Girl Guides Promise

Girl Guide salute, as used when making the promise,
demonstrated by a Canadian Guide and Brownie (1985)
For an organisation with a small membership, Girl Guides Australia has attracted local and international media attention in the past week. Though there are fewer than 30,000 girls and women involved in Guiding in Australia today, down substantially from a peak of 80,000 and despite a century-long legacy in which one million Australian women are former Guides, the very idea of changing a traditional organisation still excites public opinion. This week the more than century-old Guide promise was revised to remove reference to a “duty to God” and service to the Queen. The change is clearly intended to stem the decline in Guiding in Australia. This downward trend is not reflected in the United Kingdom where there are more than half a million Guides and one in every three girls of the appropriate age is enrolled in Brownies. For an organisation teetering on the edge of becoming unviable in its current form, the change in the Australian Guide promise is a major, and controversial, step in demonstrating that an organisation built out of British imperialism is still relevant to 21st century girls in a postcolonial nation.
Across the past decade or more, Guiding in Australia had already begun moving away from many of the traditions that defined it during the mid-20th century. Uniforms became more casual, with mix-and-match polo shirts and other casual wear. Overall the new look is less reminiscent of a 1970s QANTAS flight attendent crossed with a sailor in full regalia in an attempt to lose some of the daggy connotations associated with being a Guide. In what I thought was a sad moment, the Brownie section of the movement was merged with Guiding such that there is no separate uniform for Australian girls in the younger age group (and no toadstool, Brown Owl, skipping around mirrors, or Woorails, Tintookies or Lullagullis).  

Australian Guiding has been eager to show that it is modern and progressive and a cool place to be. Witness this television advertisement from three years ago that was clearly not impressive to the one Guide who chose to comment on it. The logic of tween and teen years means that anything that girls need be told by adults is "cool" is, in fact, the farthest thing from being so. Even I knew that I was flirting with danger as a Brownie in 1988 and did not make the transition to Guiding when I became too old for my brown dress and yellow skivvy.

Changes in uniform and name, coupled with attempts to promote Guiding on television, seemingly did little to attract more girls to an organisation that was nevertheless making great efforts to provide a relevant and challenging program for today's girls. Guiding in Australia has an image problem. As in the UK, the shifting cultural make-up of Australia's population has prompted some of the changes to Guiding. In 2007, Girl Guides UK introduced a headscarf to the official uniform to encourage Muslim girls to feel welcome in Guiding. Last year a Muslim Guide unit was established in New South Wales in an attempt to draw in girls from communities who have not traditionally been part of Guiding in Australia.

Ismaili (a sect of Shia Islam) Girl Guides circa 1920s holding a portrait
of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan

Nevertheless, any idea that Guiding was or is a solely Christian organisation is untrue. A substantial number of units, especially in the United Kingdom, had associations with church groups, but an equally substantial number were run from neutral community halls or purpose-built huts. From the beginning, Scout and Guide founder Robert Baden-Powell made it clear that girls must believe in a higher being in order to join, but the notion of God did not preclude girls of faiths other than Christianity from becoming Guides. Indeed, it was the imagined relevance of Guiding and Girl Scouting to girls from every kind of background that meant that it was adopted in one-hundred-and-forty-five countries, with Hindu and Muslim nations among those that formed affiliations with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts not long after its formation. Guiding began in India in 1911, Turkey in 1923, Lybia in 1958 and the United Arab Emirates in 1973, to give just a small number of examples.

Without denying some of the missionary efforts underlying the establishment of Guiding in some of these countries, or the historical separation of Indigenous girls from white girls in some places, Guiding did set out with goals of being relevant to, and inclusive of, girls of all faiths and races. Olave Baden-Powell, the World Chief Guide from 1930 until her death in 1977 (and Baden-Powell’s wife), visited over one hundred countries to meet with Guides, and spent a substantial amount of time in places such as Kenya.

How curious, then, that it is imagined in 2012 that steps need to be taken to ensure that girls of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome in Guiding: this idea has been at its core for more than a century. The recent change is oriented around the “promise”, a brief paragraph that is generally only spoken once in a Guide’s time in the organisation, unless there is an extraordinary situation in which the promise is renewed (as at the Guiding centenary celebrations recently). In this way, it’s reminiscent of a marriage vow—symbolic, but of little ongoing importance in day-to-day living.

The original British Guide promise read:
“On my honour, I promise that I will do my best-,
To do my duty to God and the King,
To help other people at all times,
To obey the Guide law.”

The promise that I made in Brownies in Australia in the 1980s was very similar:
“I promise that I will do my best,
To do my duty to God,
To serve the Queen and my country,
To help other people,
and to keep the Brownie Guide law.”

It is also how the Australian Guide promise read (minus the word “Brownie”) until the following  promise was adopted:
“I promise that I will do my best:
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs
To serve my community and Australia
And live by the Guide Law.”
Queen Elizabeth II inspects a Girl Guide
Much of the media response has focused on the removal of God and the Queen from the promise. Australian Scouts have the option of mentioning the Queen or leaving her out, but God remains. In the UK, the Guide promise wording is still in the vein of the original promise, but “to love my God” replaces “do my duty to God”. This retains the spirit of Baden-Powell’s intent that Guides should believe in a higher being (though some countries were originally permitted to replace the term God with an alternative), but that this could accommodate girls of any religious faith. While Australian Guiding could have similarly changed “duty to God” to “love my God” to more clearly show the inclusion all kinds of religious belief, they have instead opted for the vague “develop my beliefs”.

I think this wording indicates that there is no longer a requirement to have any kind of faith in a god, rather than being an attempt to accommodate girls of all religious faiths, who have been welcome from the outset. As an atheist, the removal of reference to God does not bother me, but it is intriguing that this change has been presented as a way of accommodating different religious backgrounds rather than acknowledgement of Australia’s increasing secularisation, or at least of declining participation in formal religious attendance. There has been critique of UK and US Guide and Scout organisations for discriminating against atheists in their membership terms, and this change in Australia has successfully removed reference to God in a way that seems more accommodating of religious diversity rather than being irreligious.

Though the removal of reference to the Queen has been of most interest to monarchist and republicans, the changes to the accompanying Guide Law are striking for the way they mark of changes in how we perceive childhood. The original Guide Law was composed in 1910:
"A Guide is loyal and can be trusted.
A Guide is helpful.
A Guide is polite and considerate.
A Guide is friendly and a sister to all Guides.
A Guide is kind to animals and respects all living things.
A Guide is obedient.
A Guide has courage and is cheerful in all difficulties.
A Guide makes good use of her time.
A Guide takes care of her own possessions and those of other people.
A Guide is self-controlled in all she thinks, says and does."

The new Law bears little relationship to the original:
"As a Guide I will strive to:
Respect myself and others
Be considerate, honest and trustworthy
Be friendly to others
Make choices for a better world
Use my time and abilities wisely
Be thoughtful and optimistic
Live with courage and strength."
While it is admirable that girls are encouraged to think about their potential to change the world, some of the deletions are revealing. To be “cheerful in all difficulties” does suggest a kind of outdated model of the uncomplaining housewife, yet the notion of staying positive despite adversity still seems relevant, especially in a world in which children are increasingly shielded from disappointment and its by-product, resilience. In the brief discussion of the changes in the Law in the media, the use of the words “loyal” and “obedient” were seen as especially inappropriate for girls and women. Loyalty is a valuable quality in all humans, and for girls who develop through contemporary hurdles to coming-of-age, such as cyberbullying, being a trustworthy friend is surely still important. “Obedience” is much more fraught in that the notion of women “obeying” their husbands that was embedded in the marriage oath suggested a gendered obligation to subservience. Nevertheless, it is telling that we no longer expect children to “obey” or do as they are instructed by parents, teachers, or community leaders, as in Guiding.  We also lose specific reference to being kind to animals, which is disappointing in an age of factory farming, animal testing, and wholesale destruction of habitat that is entwined with environmental degradation. What better way to "make choices for a better world" than by "respect[ing] all living things"?

I understand that the girls and leaders involved in Guiding all feel some kind of ownership over the organisation and that agreeing on a new promise and Law must have involved inevitable compromise and concession. The intent of the changes are no doubt worthy, in that they aim to make Australian parents and girls see Guiding as a worthwhile place to socialise with other girls and to develop leadership and practical skills that they might not undertake in school. The removal of God and the Queen from the promise removes much that was symbolic of Guiding throughout its first century. The test will be whether a new model of Guiding, without these traditions, retains sufficient meaning and identity, or whether holding on to these traditional signs, in modified form, and with attempts to modernise, as in the United Kingdom, is a better strategy for the survival of Guiding.


Anonymous said...

It is sad to see this happen, just to suit a few people. Our family was not religious but I had no problem sending my children to Guides and Scouts and with the Oath. One more nail in the coffin of Australia. Part of the breakup. Our heritage to be swept aside again.

Why do they continue to keep the Queen's guide as the highest honour? how hypocritical.

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Michelle Smith said...

Anonymous, I did find it a bit sad, because I'm in some ways resistant to change and love history. I guess I was used to oaths to God as a child that I didn't really subscribe to, as I was in a non-religious family but attended a Catholic school. It didn't even figure in my mind that much as anything significant, especially as it was something you said once. As the organisation relies on religious membership in the US (especially Mormons in Boy Scouting), it will be interesting to see whether the removal of God improves or reduces Guiding's popularity. Surely the option to remove the word for those with oppositions would have worked too.

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