Perhaps - given the suffragette movement that reached its peak in England at the time - Lord Baden-Powell should have expected something out of the ordinary to happen at the first Boy Scout rally at Crystal Palace in 1909. The previous year, the British Army lieutenant-general had effectively started the Boy Scout movement with the publication of his book Scouting for Boys. Girls read it, too, and started trying the activities described in it. One brave group crashed the rally and, asking for "something for the girls", demanded to become Girl Scouts.
Lord Baden-Powell asked his sister, Agnes, to adapt his book for girls and, a year later, the Girl Guides movement was formed. One hundred years on, more than 10 million girls and women are involved in Guiding worldwide, and plans are afoot across the globe to celebrate the centenary. In Abu Dhabi, Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Senior Section members will celebrate with a party tomorrow at Sparkys in Khalidiyah Mall.
Girl Guiding is about far more than tying knots and always having change for the phone. Its programmes are laid down by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which aims to help girls from the ages of five to 25 to develop emotionally, intellectually, morally, physically, socially and spiritually. "It's all about the girls," says Tracy Bishop, the district commissioner for Abu Dhabi. "A couple of years ago, the Girl Guiding slogan changed to 'girls in the lead'. This means that they get to choose anything they want to do in their meetings. The Guiders make space for them to do this, within reason." This approach is part of the movement's stated aim to help the girls fulfil their potential and make a difference to the world. Famous alumni include the Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, the first British woman in space, Helen Sharman, the actress Emma Thompson and the former prime minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie Booth.
Girls start Guiding at the age of five as Rainbows. When they turn seven, they can join Brownies. (Gone are the brown-knitted bobble hats of yore - Brownies now wear T-shirts and a skirt/shorts combination designed by Ally Capellino.) At the age of 10, girls can go on to Guides, and, from there, into the Senior Section, which comprises girls between 14 and 25 years old. The first Brownie pack in the UAE was set up in 1967 in Abu Dhabi. Today, in the Abu Dhabi district and the four Dubai districts (Arabian Ranches, Dubai, Jumeirah and Jebel Ali and the newly formed Springs district), there are seven Rainbows units, 14 Brownie units, six Guide units and two Senior Sections, all run by volunteers. According to figures collected by the British Guides in Foreign Countries, the UAE ranks second only to Germany in having the largest group of British girls in Guiding outside the UK.
The international presence of Girl Guides associations means members can remain involved no matter where they live, provided there is a Guiding unit open in their host country. As Bishop says: "Being part of Brownies or Guides allows the girls to step back into the familiar wherever they are, which is useful, especially with the expat life being so transient. This can be a steady and consistent thing in their lives."
There are Guiding units in more than 145 countries around the world, each with distinctive uniforms and names. Brownies in Greece, for example, are called Birds and in Rwanda they are known as Wagtails. These units adhere to the principles set out by WAGGGS, of which Girl Guiding UK is a founder member. The Girl Guides Association of the UAE was set up in 1973 and, as of January 2006, had more than 2,000 girls in its units. Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak is the patron of the association, which is headquartered in Sharjah.
Being in the Girl Guide movement gives girls an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. "It's about being part of a team, a group of people you don't need to have known before, joining together and being accepted regardless," says Bishop. Justine Lawry, whose daughter, Tilly, is in the First Abu Dhabi Rainbows Unit, says she encouraged Tilly to join: "I was a Brownie and a Guide and I really enjoyed it. I like the camaraderie of the girls together, and that they can feel part of a special little club at this age. Also, as she goes to a mixed school, I think it's nice for her to do some things just with girls."
Girls of all ages play and work together in units. Klara Hunt, 12, a member of the First Abu Dhabi Guides, says: "I like meeting new people from different schools. We mix with different age groups and I like that. I look up to them." Caroline Weatherspoon, who has two daughters in the Second Abu Dhabi Brownies unit, cites this as one of the reasons she was keen for her daughters to attend Brownies. "They've got good role models. The Guides help out in the Brownies and the girls see the kindness shown by the older girls."
Brownies work towards more than 50 badges - from cookery to stargazer to wildlife explorer - which play a part in equipping them with useful skills for later in life. By the time they reach the Senior Section, they can work towards the Queen's Guide Award, which is similar to the Duke of Edinburgh Award programme. To mark the centenary, a new badge, the Adventure 100, has been introduced. It encourages girls of all ages to participate in activities either with their units or at home with the aim of reaching 100 points by the end of the year.
Guiding units in the UAE work to benefit their communities and international charities. "It's part of the promise everyone makes when they join," Bishop says. "In March, the girls were asked to think of something they could do to change the world. There were several different charities they could help. The girls chose Camfed, which helps to provide secondary education for girls in Africa. We raised just over Dh19,000 in Abu Dhabi."
As the eight-year-old Ananya Vaidya in the Second Abu Dhabi Brownies says: "It makes you think more about people suffering in the world. When we raised money for Camfed, we had a tabletop sale and we did good deeds and put the money we got in a box." To highlight the broad reach and history of the Guiding movement, the members of the Abu Dhabi District units at tomorrow's party have each invited one guest who has made their Guiding promise, be it their mother, grandmother, aunt or a friend.
Later this month, the Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and members of Senior Sections from Dubai districts will also hold centenary celebrations. The girls in the Jumeirah and Jebel Ali district will have a "tea at the Ritz" party with their mothers to emphasise the impact Guiding has had on the generations. The Arabian Ranches district will hold a desert camp at the end of the month. Nicola Dolan, the district commissioner for the Springs, says: "We have only got three units so we've decided to all play together. We are having an 'all the fun of the fair' afternoon, with fairground-type stalls and simple things for girls aged five to 13 to enjoy. It's a good opportunity for the girls of all ages to mix."
Several more events are planned for the rest of the year. In March, about 200 Guides, Senior Section members and leaders from around the country will attend a camp at the Emirates Marine Environmental Reserve at Ghantoot. The Guides will take part in activities such as mangrove planting, sports, music, crafts and campfires. The centenary celebrations will end on October 20 next year at 8.10pm, when members of the Girl Guiding movement around the world will renew their Guiding promise.
To join or volunteer with Rainbows, Brownies, Guides or the Senior Section, contact Tracy Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org or, for the Girl Guiding Association of the UAE, call 02 446 4100.