A long time ago when I was 9 years old, I remember my friends would don the slightly tatty pair of mud-brown uniforms and head off happily for 90 minutes in the company of girls similarly clad. I mutinously refused to do so.
It would have taken much more to convince me that an outfit I long suspected of simply exacerbating the difference between the sexes (with all its hostess, sewing and cooking badges for girls) is something to admire or even respect.
Granted that my own tragic skills in sewing and revulsion of housework got me rebelling against my parents’ efforts to put me into the Brownies unit at my school.
I joined the Red Crescent Society instead. And no, I didn’t exactly love it either. Nevertheless, I was grateful that it got me out of the dreary Home Economics classroom and out onto the field.
Tales of campfire camaraderie with home economics combined formed my initial perception of Girl Guides. It perpetuated the stereotypical notions of femininity, I argued while my erstwhile friends blithely moved on to become Girl Guides as we shifted to our Secondary years.
But truth be told, I was envious. My friends and their troop of guides were having fun, earning a multitude of badges that no longer revolved around baking cookies, sewing or being the ultimate hostess.
They went on to learn survival skills in the wilderness, speaking in public and gradually taking up exciting leadership roles as they became more empowered — a far cry from traditional images of an organisation whose hostess and needlecraft badges made it seem more akin to a junior women’s institute.
In the meantime, I continued to struggle with basic cooking (much to my mother’s despair) and wrestled with the needle and thread to sew the wretched buckle on my pinafore.
It would seem that this was and remains the ultimate feminist organisation after all. And one that should be remembered for championing girls and raising women leaders, especially during the globally felicitated International Women’s Day (which falls every March 8) — a common day that celebrates women’s achievements and reflect on gender inequalities and issues that remain.
The organisation, which was once often dismissed as a harmless pastime for middle-class girls, has helped mould the characters of some of the world’s most successful women.
Feminist icons and celebrities including Michelle Obama, JK Rowling and Emma Thompson routinely recall their Girl Guide or Girl Scout days as a source of strength that launched them into lives of purpose.
There’s an undeniable sense of pride that comes with being part of the Girl Guides movement.
Girl Guide proponents Thammy Chong, Chempaka Pahamin and Ankita Saigal can attest to that. “We’ve all been girl guides from a very young age!” says Chong with a laugh.
While many women may remember being a Brownie, a Guide or a Ranger in their childhoods, and earning badges for learning skills like making a bed or brewing a cup of tea, in addition to the greater excitement of going camping, Chong tells me that the association has long moved away from its traditional middle-class milieu.
“It’s not just about camping, cooking, singing and doing one good deed a day,” insists the 38-year-old International Commissioner for the Girl Guides Association in Malaysia. “It’s so much more than that!”
By “so much more than that”, Chong means that the traditional “character-building” activities for which the movement was famed, such as baking cookies, doing laundry, learning to tie knots, put up tents and administer first aid, have been expanded in order to appeal to girls with different interests.
Chempaka, who’s the National Commissioner for junior girl guides, explains that the activities that young girls can participate as guides are as diverse as they come.
“They’re exposed to so many opportunities out there. Basic survival skills are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to useful life skills that the Girl Guides encourage. They truly focus on making girls independent, educated and compassionate members of society in all ways.”
Creating a female-only space in which girls can feel comfortable trying new things has always been one of the main objectives of the Guide movement.
“The vision for the Girl Guides Association in Malaysia is to take the lead for developing the potential of girls and women for change,” declares Chong, pointing out that the organisation has been dealing with some of the social changes affecting girls today — sexual stereotyping and pressures of their physical appearance amongst them.
On top of that, adds Chong, Girl Guides provides a consistent and safe environment for girls to form healthy relationships with each other, be influenced by strong female leaders and role models, and be exposed to a world of opportunities and skills that just aren’t available in most schools or homes.
“We want to give girls a safe space to grow and to give them a voice on the social issues impacting their futures — from body image and mental health to equality and female role models,” she elaborates.
By helping millions of girls in this nation and worldwide to “challenge themselves, to find their voice, meet new friends, have fun and make a difference in the world”, the World’s Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) at more than a century in age, is probably one of the oldest and biggest feminist organisations in the world.
“Well, it is the largest female organisation in Malaysia,” says Chong, grinning.
Feminism has been the cornerstone of the Girl Guide movement from its early beginnings. It was said that the guides started as a feminist and campaigning group when girls “gate-crashed” the
first Boy Scout Rally at Crystal Palace in 1909, demanding “something for the girls too!”
The Guide Association was then established in 1909 — thanks to the efforts of these intrepid forward-thinking girls who refused to accept that scouting was ‘just for boys’. Soon, these young women began completing badges in sailing, aviation and home electrics.
Later still, Girl Guides were making important contributions to the First World War effort — growing food, acting as messengers for government organisations and working in hospitals, factories and soup kitchens.
In Malaysia not long after, schoolgirls were introduced to the association that taught them a myriad of life skills, gave them opportunities to make new friends, join excursions and exposed them to volunteerism. The year 1916 marked the beginning of the Malaya Girl Guides Association at the Kuala Lumpur Methodist Girls School by Gertrude Ballard.
“It’s been over a century since Girl Guiding in Malaysia was established, and our girls continue to push boundaries and achieve great things,” says Chong with pride.
A case in point, she adds, is Ankita. The bubbly 20-year-old is set to represent 10 million girls from 150 countries, as a delegate from WAGGGS to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women from March 12 to 23.
“I’m very fortunate to be the sole representative from Asia (and Malaysia) to join 12 other youth delegates from around the world. WAGGGS has been given a space at the UN Commission to include youths as part of the conference. After all, being the only organisation fully led by women and young girls, we know best the challenges that girls and women around the globe face,” explains Ankita.
Adding, she confides: “Guiding has given me the confidence to speak. It has also given me a very valuable voice. And I try to share that with as many people as I can.”
For these three women and scores of others who have been part of the Guiding movement in this nation, being a Girl Guide has been more than just an activity. It has been life-transforming.
The best thing about Guides, says Chong, is “being part of a team and working together alongside other people, and not being afraid to try new challenging things that you may not have thought about yourself”. She goes on to add that these have provided her with life skills that proved useful once she started working.
“Who I am today — to a large extent — is owed to my Girl Guiding experience. I wouldn’t be the person I am now if it wasn’t for the Girl Guides,” reveals Chempaka.
Nodding, Ankita chips in: “I was very shy when I was much younger. It has given me the confidence to speak to people I don’t know. It has also made me a stronger person.”
And this is the very reason why, for the 38-year old Chong and the 47-year-old Chempaka, there’s no reason to hang up the uniform just yet.
“I think once a guide, always a guide,” quips Chong. “I’ve never stopped being with the Guides movement since I first joined as a young girl!” remarks Chempaka with a chuckle.
“Aunty Chempaka has been my leader since I was 10,” chips in Ankita, grinning. “All adult guiders are volunteers. You’re there purely because you care,” says Chong candidly, telling me that she went back to volunteer at her alma mater for a few years.
From shy little Brownies to women who have impacted other lives through Guiding, all three women have come full circle.
“Seeing the girls grow through guiding and witnessing their success stories make me so proud and that’s why I keep being involved,” says Chempaka.
“I’ve had volunteers who have impacted my life during my Girl Guide days in school. They inspire me to give back. One of them was Madam Khong who’s 75 today. She discovered my potential and kept me grounded. You could call her ‘my mother’ in the guiding world. She continues to inspire me till today!” reveals Chong.
“Guiding has taught me to speak out and not be quiet. I have a voice and yet there’s so many people who unfortunately cannot speak for themselves. And because I’m fortunate enough to have a voice, if there’s one thing I should do it’s to speak for them,” says Ankita.
As of 2016, there are over 108,000 girl guides dedicated to fulfilling the association’s vision of “taking the lead in developing the potential of girls and women for change”.
Having long focused on social justice, diversity and inclusion in their activities, the association continues to be about moving girls to independence and taking responsibility for themselves in the family, community and the world at large.
“If helping young women develop their full potential as leaders and active citizens of the world doesn’t make this one of the top feminist movements in the world, I don’t know what does!” I finally exclaim.
“You should have joined the girl guides!” teases Chong with a laugh.
Much to my regret, I wish I had.