Friday, 28 June 2013

Photographs Part III

So these are the pictures I was trying to find and post last night (before getting distracted by the sad things). I was going to just spam Twitter with them, but figured I'd link to here instead. So here are the photos in a chronological(ish) order with captions.

This is me aged seven on the day I was enrolled as a Brownie. The lady in the picture is NOT my Brown Owl, but my Godmother, who was ACC in Buckinghamshire (I think... though might be the wrong county or wrong dates) at the time. She caused quite the ruckus by wanting to come to and receive my Promise, as Brown Owl felt thoroughly undermined by it all (my Godmother used to Guide here, but the two of them never saw eye to eye!) but my Godmother ended up there, after all!

Tracy in sporting shocker! This was a Brownie sports day at a local school. And, unlike in Finland last year, I wasn't five miles behind everyone else!

I've made this one a little bit bigger so you can actually spot me! This was my first St. George's Day Parade in the area. We still do the same route now, many years later - except I'm the Tawny Owl at the front now! Back then, this was a brand new bit of road, and we were excited to be walking down it, as it meant it was a new route! If you haven't spotted me yet, I'm the one next to the girl in the red coat. No idea why she was in red - as you can see, we had pack cagoules!

Moving on a couple of years and my Godmother made it up for my Guide enrollment, with a slightly bigger Tracy! Same building, but new curtains. My sister made her Promise as a Brownie, the same night I renewed it as a Guide, so obligatory group shot with Leaders, sister and Godmother below.

This is my first Guide camp. We went to a place called Trent Lock, which isn't far from where we live (and I'm considering taking my Senior Section members there when I get round to doing my camp license). I wonder sometimes how they managed it - a coach seems like such a luxury for such a small distance. I also had to use a stuff sack, as my bedding rolls were notoriously awful!

Sometimes, I really hate my father for his ability to get ridiculous photos of me! He had four of my first St. George's Day Parade as a Guide, and my culottes seem to be riding up in ALL of them. I'm also suddenly aware that I'm the only one in this picture in knee high white socks! Awkward!

This was just as my sister started Guides, but she hadn't got her uniform yet. It was our first camp together and she was put in my tent! I could have KILLED our Leader!

 Gang Show! This is what I lived for in Guiding. My happiest moments as a child were amongst my Gang Show family, and I stayed in touch with the other three Guides in this picture for several years after. In fact, I recently met up with several people from this photograph and nothing much has changed - we still get on brilliantly!

My church ran a special uniformed music group for Guides, Scouts, Boys Brigade and Girls Brigade to play in at family services. I played both clarinet and saxophone in it. When my grandma came down one mothering Sunday, she wanted a photograph with both of us in Guide uniform with my instruments. My sister felt left out, so we gave her the clarinet. This is the version from the "family album", but I have the reject upstairs in my personal album where I'm laughing away. It's one of my favourite pictures.

This is me and Ruth at a Senior Section weekend at our local campsite. Not sure who the evil looking child behind us was!

This was my team at the Senior Section weekend. As you can see, Ruth and I all snuggly again. I'm surprised I wasn't instructed to put her down and leave her alone!

This is me, almost 18, at another weekend away at Elton. I had helped build the swing and was happily photographing everyone else playing on it, but was terrified myself! Another one of my favourite Guiding memories (although in AWFUL clothing!) and favourite photos.

This last picture I don't remember at all. I'm not sure where it was, what I was doing, how old I was (though I assume nearly 18 from clothing - I had just outgrown my Young Leader uniform when I got that top) or anything. All I know is that I looked rather evil with red eyes and face mask!

Photographs Part II

Yes, folks, I'm blogging on my phone at work. Because I'm so upset and tearful and raw that I need to get it out. I can't just sit on it and wait.

After sifting through various photographs and things last night, I came across another image. The most painful image of all. And I can't decide what to do about it.

Like I said, I thought I had destroyed almost everything that was associated with my rape and subsequent pregnancy. (Side note: why does a possessive pronoun seem so out of place? Claiming ownership of the event as "mine" feels wrong.) I destroyed the clothes, the shoes, photographs from that sort of time, notes for university, vocabulary books, everything.

But last night I found my ultrasound scan.

It shocked me. First of all, eight years doesn't feel like a long time, but looking at the age of the image really brought it home - it's a hell of a long time. But then all the other feelings, the sense of grief for the little girl I lost (it was early, but baby was lying right or something, so the lady was fairly certain) and everything else.
And then, inevitably, there's a decision to make. Do I keep the picture, hold onto it, or do I destroy the picture and let go?

My instinct is to destroy. That little girl didn't make it. She will always be a part of my life, in the same way that the rape itself will be, but it feels like it's time to let it go and put her to rest. Holding onto that picture or the associated feelings doesn't help me.

But I worry and question these instincts. Is it really that I want to let go or is it a need to bury things and hide them away? And what is the difference between "letting go", "moving on" and "avoidance"?

The problem with doubt is that it leads to a spiral of shame. It stops us talking and sharing our feelings, compounding the instinct to bury. Why is it that we make these subjects taboo and jeopardise each other's wellbeing in the process?

Thursday, 27 June 2013


I was looking through old photo albums tonight and was going to post lots of pictures of me as a Brownie, Guide and Young Leader. Of course, the album with all my Senior Section pictures seems to have disappeared, but it doesn't matter - I got distracted anyway.

As I flicked towards the end of the photo album (even though I knew there were no more Guiding pictures), I came across photographs my parents took when they visited me in Germany. Some made me smile, like the one of my house, but then I came to this photo, and the one after it.

This photo was taken in January 2005, just a few weeks before I was attacked. It's strange to see me smiling and so happy because I still associate the smell of bratwurst and gluhwein with everything that happened. Whilst this picture looks so happy and peaceful (and I was surprised by how young and pretty I look there - I didn't recognise myself for a moment), the one after it was taken in June, when my parents came to collect me.

In the second picture (which I can't bring myself to scan and post), I looked so different. My eyes were tired, pained. I know, looking back, that it was only a week or two after I miscarried. And the two, side by side, look like completely different people.

After that point in the album, there's not a single picture of me smiling. Every single one looks haunted and in pain, or resentful of the camera. And I was. Because whenever the camera was around, I knew that all my feelings were being captured and preserved forever. I hated seeing my pain reflected in others' eyes, I certainly didn't want it there in stone for all to see forever.

I forgot how much it hurt. It still hurts now, but not as much as it did then. And it's a different type of pain.

The truth is, I thought I had managed to destroy all pictures from that year. I thought that it was a black, blank space that I could forget about. But life's not that simple.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

10 Hours 45 Minutes

Ten hours and forty five minutes.

That’s ten hours and forty five minutes without sitting down, without leaning on a desk, without going for a toilet break, without lunch, without taking questions.

These are the lengths that some women – that ONE woman – will go to in order to protect the rights and the safety of their sisters. And those are extraordinary lengths (take it from a teacher who would love to be able to achieve those things on a daily basis!).

For those that have missed the many articles surrounding this case, a senator in Texas, Wendy Davis, intended to speak for 13 hours. This was because the state authorities had a deadline of midnight to pass a bill that put extremely prohibitive laws on abortion. By speaking for 13 hours, Wendy Davis would have made them miss the deadline, ensuring that the predominantly right-wing house couldn't vote to enforce the new laws.

She fell a little short of this 13 hour goal, mainly because the republican opposition managed to file enough complaints against her, a few of which were upheld. But one woman (Senator Leticia Van de Putte) followed with the statement, “Did the President hear me or did the President hear me and refuse to recognise me? At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognised over her male colleagues in the room?” This, naturally, caused a reaction which ultimately led to the passing of the midnight deadline.

Whilst I’m not 100% in the “if you don’t like it, don’t get one” camp (I feel that issues such as abortion are far more complex than that), I don’t believe that blanket prohibitive laws are in the best interest of a nation or, in this case, state.

Legislation doesn’t prevent abortion. It forces women underground. If a woman is absolutely against having a baby, she will do whatever she can to get rid of the foetus, and that jeopardises her life in the process. Yes, it may “save” a few foetuses whose mothers are on the border, but at what cost to their emotional and mental wellbeing? And at what cost to the child? Are we so pro-birth that we abandon all morality when it comes to life? Can you really consider yourself pro-life if you are willing to sacrifice a child’s health and happiness? What sort of “life” is it that you are supporting?

My faith makes the topic of abortion a difficult ground to tread. I believe children are a blessing (despite my job – go figure!) and I believe that God has plans for each and every one of us. But I also think that preventative legislation and constant right-wing preaching will result in people resenting God rather than coming to Him through choice or love.

Back in 2005, I discovered that I was pregnant. I didn’t know (and I will never be 100% certain) whether that pregnancy was a result of my rape or my fiancĂ©. The likelihood is that it was the former, considering precautions. When I discovered this, I had a huge decision to make. I was a student at the time, and in no real position to raise a child. How would I feed her (I later discovered she was a girl), how would I clothe her, and what support options did I have in terms of childcare?

That was just the practical side. How would I cope looking at that little girl every day of my life, knowing where she came from? This is regardless of who her father was – because ANY sort of physical intimacy or memory was incredibly painful. And that was if I even had a life with which to reflect on it. I was born with kidney scarring which leads to high blood pressure with potentially life-threatening consequences during pregnancy. I was advised as a teenager never to have children.

Despite my beliefs that I was pregnant for a reason, I had to think of the potential future for both myself and the girl. I went to the relevant specialist to try and make an appointment and my heart was heavy.

I didn't have an abortion in the end. I went and had to make my way through the waiting “respectful prayer group”. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. What right had this group to pass judgement on my situation and my decision? Had any of them experienced what was going through? Once I made it inside, I was told (though I think it must have been lost in translation somewhere) that there was an eleven month waiting list. After that, I didn't have the heart or the confidence to find somewhere else or through with it.

I don’t believe that abortion is as black and white as some would have us believe. Yes, some will regret the choice to abort, but what we need to ensure is the appropriate support services so that women can access the information they need. This may be available in the UK, but it was the German system that I encountered personally. It is essential that we consider both the physical and psychological well-being of all involved, at all points.

So how do I reconcile my belief in God with my belief in women’s choice? Very simply through prayer and compassion. God is love and we need to show that for our sisters. And that includes in not shaming them outside centres and surgeries. Even with the most well-intentioned prayer groups, we need to consider the emotional impact that it will have and where our actions lead. It is not a case of denying my God or of being “overly-PC” (as I have heard many faith issues described in the past weeks), but rather of understanding my calling as one of gentleness and respect, and ministry through example and kindness.

Whilst on the subject of God, faith and family planning, I just want to drop in a comment / story that both horrified and amused me this week. I heard Julie Bentley described as “not only anti-God, but an agent of Satan, as proven by her family planning work”. Far from it proving an allegiance to Satan, or even being anti-God, surely the compassion and dedication that Julie shows in her various causes and charities shows a commitment to a moral framework and the ideal of thinking outside the self, regardless of her religious beliefs!

But in the story of Wendy Davis and her colleagues, I feel it important to note that it wasn't necessarily the cause itself that grabbed my attention, nor the fact that (yet again) women had to fight against men about legislation that affects them. What really grabbed my attention was the fight, the commitment, what women can and will do for a cause they are passionate about.

I like to think that I am strong-willed and prepared to fight. But, realistically, how far am I willing to push any given issue? The reality is that I won’t push very far. My work always seems to come first, and I have to be careful not to do anything that risks me getting arrested or put in a position of shaming the school that I work for (leading to dismissal).

Would I speak for almost eleven hours to stop a bill going through? Only if I could realistically assure myself that I wouldn't be forcibly removed or arrested. Would I risk going onto a racecourse to hang a scarf like Emily Wilding Davison did? Probably not. I would be far too worried about injury to myself, to the horse and to the rider.

As time goes on, I feel that I am pushing further into territory in which I do feel uncomfortable. I’m starting to speak out using personal examples, I’m going to be speaking at an event in London this summer and I am working with the Nottingham Feminist Network on events in the city. Maybe one day, I will have the strength to show the sort of courage that these female senators in Texas showed today.

Passion transforms people. It gives them hope, strength, motivation. It fills them with emotions that can be harnessed to transform the lives of other people, to create a wave. In the face of a strong patriarchal resistance, these women didn’t let it wash over them, but inspired each other to fight and stand up for the rights of others. I only hope it inspires more women to do the same.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Change Listen Educate Transcript

I am Tracy.

I am a teacher.

I am a Guide Leader.

I am a sister, a daughter, a friend, a clutz and, most importantly, I am a human being.

I am exactly like you... Except eight years ago, I was raped.

I lived in Germany at the time, and I was abandoned by my friends, laughed at by the police and ridiculed by my own mother.

Why? Because I don't fit the idea of a rape victim. Or survivor. Or whatever word you want to use, I'm just not it. I'm not pretty, not innocent, not delicate, shy or retiring.

But that doesn't change the truth.

The list of myths surrounding rape is horrendous and never-ending. Every day, the media tells women that they can help themselves by wearing the right clothes, by not drinking too much. Every day, the media implies that only young, pretty girls get raped. Every day, we are told that rape is about sex. It's not. It's about power.

I have repeatedly been asked why I can't just let go of the past, why I hold onto it so tightly. The truth is that I can't let what happened to me become insignificant. because it wasn't. It changed my life forever. Yes, I'm continuing and I'm battling through, but that doesn't make my experience any less painful.

I can't let what happened to me become insignificant, but I'm going to use the pain to fight and to speak out for those who can't. Instead of letting it become insignificant, I'm going to let it become important. Incredibly important.

According to the AVA project, 25% of teenage girls experience physical violence in their relationships. 1 in 3 is abused sexually. In fact, 40% of girls between the ages of 16 and 18 have been pressured into sex against their will.

But teenagers say their voice is not being heard.

We need to change this.

We need to educate young people - not just girls - about the truth of gender-based violence. They need to know the truth about consent, about what rape actually is. They need to know that it happens to women of all ages, of all backgrounds and in all communities. They need to know the support that's available to them. The need to know that it is NEVER their fault.

We need to educate the general public. We need to show them that young people are empowered citizens with a voice, who care about their communities and their sisters. We need to smash stereotypes.

We need to educate the game changers. We need to prove to them that rape matters. That ALL violence matters and that we will not sit and take it anymore. That men care just as much as women.

And we need to listen. Listen to what the women are telling us. Listen to the whispers as well as the screams. We need to become a compassionate society that supports rather than blames, that is inspired to act for change.

This is my story. This is my passion. And this is my wish...

We need to change.
We need to listen.
We need to educate.

Again, if you would like to vote for me, please click here

Change Listen Educate

Here is my audio entry for the "Speak Out" campaign / competition. The transcript can be found here. It's the first time I have really vocalised this personal story, so go easy!

If you want to vote for my entry in the Speak Out competition, please click here and click next to my name (Tracy).

There are additional notes related to this entry here. These have been removed from this entry, as they are not part of the competition (it is solely the audio or transcript to be judged).

Friday, 21 June 2013

Who, What and Why: The truth about rape

As my personal journey continues, I find myself increasingly drawn to research and articles about rape and sexual assault. Sometimes I wonder if it’s genuine curiosity, an attempt to alleviate myself of some of the self-blame or whether it’s a third, slightly more grotesque option.

Regardless of the reason, a series of articles (and of views I've heard in my office) have led me to the conclusion that sexual assault is not only glamourised by the media, but seriously misunderstood by the general public, and not just the minority of them that I had originally thought. And until people understand the basic truth of rape - what it is, why it actually happens - then not only will it continue but so will this culture of “victim blaming”.

Often, it seems that rape on television involves knives, strangers accosting in the street, drugs or is the absolute furthest extreme of the definition. Yes, rape is horrific and traumatic and life-altering, but the reality of rape for many women is so far removed from this that they can even doubt the event entirely. It can be because the man is someone she knows, because she originally consented but changed her mind, because the paralysis of fear resulted in less of a struggle than she expected… sometimes the lines are just so blurred that the word rape somehow seems alien, that a woman will choose to dismiss it as “just bad sex” because her experience doesn't match common media perception.

I’m not saying that the media representation of rape doesn't happen. It does. A lady I used to know had three prominent scars from the base of her neck down to her collar bone. She told me of how she lived in Africa and that men came to her hut in the dead of night and repeatedly raped her, holding a knife to her throat, that it happened not just one night and not with just one group of men. It does happen, there is no denying it.

But for the majority of women who are sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is someone they know. Sometimes it is a family member, sometimes the current partner, sometimes it is just a friend of a friend. Norwich Rape Crisis reports that as many as four out of five women know their attacker.

Now imagine that you and your work colleague have had dinner, been flirting, things have got heated. You go back for “coffee” and one thing leads to another. But somehow it doesn't feel right and you say no. You tell him to stop. He doesn't listen, and the more you say no, the more he seems to enjoy it. You can’t move or push him away and you're not sure why, because he’s not overly rough or violent with it. You put it down to a bad experience, a date that went a bit wrong. It’s only the next time someone tries to touch you that you realise…

Is it rape?

The simple answer is yes. Sex becomes rape when the woman has not consented, or when she removes that consent. Whether it seems particularly violent or not at the time is irrelevant; rape is a serious violation of the body, mind and trust. It doesn't matter whether weapons have been used, whether you know him, whether it happened in his home or yours, what matters is you – your experiences, your feelings and your well-being.

It also doesn't matter how you dressed, or the signs that you gave out. It doesn't matter if you flirted with him earlier in the evening, it does't even matter if you were enjoying sex and then changed your mind. The moment you said no and he didn't stop, it became rape. In fact, the moment you stopped consenting, it became rape, whether you said the word no or not.

Too many people assume that the woman must have done something to deserve this assault. Or that the assault itself never existed, because they simply don’t understand that rape is not always a stranger in a dark alley. Rape is everywhere, it happens to everyone.

I was told by a lady that she would be the wrong person to run a project for Women’s Aid or Rape Crisis because she was “white, middle-class, in her thirties and married”. She told me that she would be completely unable to relate to the people she would be working with for those reasons.

Whilst statistics produced by the Crime Survey for England and Wales indicate that students (particularly women aged 16-24) and women living in urban areas experience serious sexual assault more often than older women or those living in suburbs, they also show that women of all ages and from all backgrounds have had this trauma.

We need to accept that gender-based violence happens everywhere, every day, to everyone. And we need to work together to change that, rather than set ourselves apart based on archaic stereotypes.

One of the many articles that shocked me over the last few weeks was one about anti-rape devices. I am not a particularly big supporter of these to begin with, as the underlying message seems to be that it’s the woman’s responsibility to protect herself and not the man’s responsibility to keep it in his pants. But many of these devices listed were focused on a woman’s appearance, such as “hairy tights” that make your legs look like you've never shaved / waxed them.

The idea that rape is linked to attractiveness and physical appearance infuriates me (and let's not start on the expectations about body hair!). I am not conventionally beautiful. I am not slim, I have frizzy hair, I have a double chin and my nose is far too big for my face (as my sister loves to point out on a regular basis). I have been told by many that I simply could NOT have been raped, because who could find me attractive? I have been told that I should be grateful for the attention and that someone showed interest by others, including my own mother and the German police.

Rape does not happen because a woman is attractive. Rape does not happen because a woman is wearing a short skirt, because she is wearing a low cut top, because she has a reputation for being promiscuous, because she is drunk or because she was “asking for it”. Rape doesn't even happen because a man was so turned on that he couldn't control it.

But it IS about control.

A rapist assaults in order to give himself a power-rush. For some men, it is an old lady, for others it is a beautiful woman who would be otherwise unattainable to him, and for some, it is a woman who is outspoken, powerful and represents the control that he wants. By taking away her most private, intimate experiences in a way that society deems taboo, he controls her.

And he doesn't just control her for those few minutes. He controls her in her sleep when she sees his face, in flashbacks when she hears or smells something similar, he controls her through the fear and through the confusion of her feelings which she is ashamed of and doesn't understand.

Rape isn't about sex, it’s about power. And power isn't always about beauty.

It’s imperative that we challenge these stereotypes, that we speak out and change people’s perception about rape and serious sexual assault. I don’t expect every woman who has experienced such an event to raise her hand, but I want the message to be spread. I want women to know that they are not alone, that their experience is not insignificant, that their feelings matter, that there are others out there. I want people to know that rape happens in your own home, with people you know, in ways that seem so “mundane” that it’s hard to comprehend why you feel so violated. I want people to see that rape is not about beauty, that it doesn't matter what you wear, whether you’re a size 8 or a size 28 because it’s about power, it’s about control.

Most of all, I want change. I want the blame to stop. This “victim-blaming”, the “self-blame”, the accusations of lying due to the perceived concept of rape. I want women to speak with conviction and confidence and for men to stand up in support, not belittle and dismiss. I want the word to spread.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Religion, Class & Nationality

“The sort of families who are involved in Guiding and have the money to do it are Christian anyway, and those families with no money and on benefits don’t give a shit about Guiding anyway!”

“We need to stop pandering to people with other religions, they need to show respect for our religion and culture. They need to learn to live here, or go back home. And Guiding is such an English thing, why would they be interested anyway?”

These are the views of my Unit Leader, who is well known in our area for her strong opinions and rather blunt phrasing. Most of us have learnt just to shrug our shoulders and let her get on with it, but I’ve noticed that this is actually a more common attitude amongst Leaders than I originally thought.

You see, it all seems to centre on the idea that religion is based upon class and nationality. It isn’t.

M tried to argue that only the well off can afford to give up their Sunday for church, and do so for social status rather than a love of God. This may happen in some areas, but I would argue that this is not the core group of Christians. In all the churches I have been part of, the congregations have been full of vibrant, enthusiastic individuals searching for fellowship and support in their journey with God.

God has never been picky about wealth. After all, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (something so important and fundamental to teaching that it is reported in the gospel according to Luke, Matthew and Mark. Three times!). Those with wealth are often too focused on their Earthly goods, and not on the riches of heaven (and so are many of us less rich people too, I must admit!). And is Christianity really about attendance at church, or is it about leading life as a follower of Christ, with your Lord at the centre?

Are all atheists living in abject poverty, as M suggested? I doubt Richard Dawkins is that badly off, though my lovely teacher friend would probably agree that she could do with a little more money! And what about those who follow Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism or Judaism?

Spiritual belief is a personal journey. Some religions, due to the values that they practice and develop, will lead their followers to certain jobs or to do those jobs in certain ways. Those that think outside the self are more inclined to vocational work, for example. But vocational professions are not necessarily well paid, nor badly paid – it depends entirely on which is being discussed.

An interesting survey in 2009 found that, in fact, the majority of theists came from “lower socio-economic grades” whereas the majority of atheists were from wealthier backgrounds. I am dubious to accept this without looking at the raw data, but find it interesting that the opposite of the national stereotype appears to be true.

As for nationality and religion being intrinsically linked, exposure to a religion in culture does affect one’s beliefs, but this is not the sole cause of spiritual belief, nor is it right to assume that all people of non-Christian belief come from other countries.

A survey by Faith Matters, for example, estimates that approximately 5000 people in Britain convert to Islam each year and the 2011 census records 1.2 million muslims born in the UK. The new British Sikh report shows that 50% of Sikhs in Britain consider themselves to be “British Sikhs” and a further 15.6% and 2% to be English and Scottish Sikhs respectively.

Interestingly, the religion that has had the biggest “boost” due to migration is Christianity, rather than any of the others, and the least “ethnically diverse” group was those who answered “no religion” in the census!
Of course, there is a third issue in M’s quote, which (knowing the demographic of those reading) probably doesn’t need addressing, but I will for the sake of clarity.

Girlguiding welcomes girls and young women from all backgrounds. Not just all religions, but regardless of financial circumstances. Despite what some Leaders will tell you, Guiding wear is not a requirement for membership and we would rather have girls in our units than put off by an expense. Despite what some Leaders will tell you, if there are difficult circumstances, we have access to grants both within the organisation and in the local community. Guiding is not about money, it’s about access to new experiences and opportunities and the development of the individual.

I’ve heard several Leaders threatening to quit and close their units whilst spouting this sort of hatred. As much as I would hate to see girls lose out as a result of this, and despise seeing units close, I think that the Leaders in question DO need to re-assess what Girlguiding is, what it means to them and whether they really are capable of delivering the sort of equality and development that has always been expected of them.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Promise For All: Real World Reactions

I love working with young people and both the challenges and rewards that it provides me. Wednesdays are exhausting for me, with a full day of teaching, then staff meetings, then I have Rangers. But I've never been so grateful for this contact as today, when I got the chance to hear what young people are really saying about our new Promise.

This morning, I pinned my Promise badge on the collar of my shirt. Usually, I don't even wear it for Thinking Day (unless in a school I know well), so it was an unusual occurrence. Most of the adults in my office didn't recognise the badge at all, though one or two asked about it.

It was coming back to the language base at break time that I had my first run-in with pupils who knew the trefoil and wanted to talk, and from that point onwards, I heard opinions and conversations throughout the school and at Rangers. There are so many little snippets and quotes and stories, that it doesn't make sense to try and put them into a piece, but I just wanted to keep all here as a record of some of the things being said.

"Oh look! Miss is a Guide!" one pupil spotted. "Have you all seen the news today about the Promise? They've finally changed the God bit and mum says I can join now if I want to!"

Another pupil was talking about her experience. "Mum and dad didn't like the fact I'd be singled out, replacing my God with Allah. This would mean I could make the same Promise as everyone else. We did think about Scouts at one point, but they want me in a single-sex environment."

"I didn't mind the word God, but I just said it because everyone else was. I guess this is a wording I can actually mean," another pupil said.

A teacher commented, "I really wanted to become a Leader, but the Promise always seemed too Christian, too loaded. I wasn't comfortable making it and I wasn't comfortable helping girls with it. The new one might work, but depends on training given to current Leaders. I'd definitely consider volunteering now."

"I hated the God bit as a kid," another teacher told the office. "It was like promising to obey the tooth fairy as far as I was concerned. This is a promise that really grows with the individual."

"I like the fact that Guides are in the news all the time," a boy told me. "They seem really cool and do far more exciting and important things than the Scouts. The only thing we see about Scouts is Kate... so what? You guys talk about feminism and beliefs and chucking food away at arenas. You're trying to make a difference and letting everyone know it!" (Not a Scout vs Guide debate - I'm a member of BOTH - but am recording the conversations and it shows the kudos owed to our press team!)

"I thought Guides was a bit old-fashioned, but I've seen them doing things recently and now this... maybe I should give it a go!" 

"I was once a Brownie and then a Guide," a thirteen year old girl told me. "But my Leaders kept telling me that I had to go to church parade, that I needed to be a Christian and that they would let me be in the unit because I wasn't old enough to make my own decisions, but they needed to show me about church and singing graces and things. Mum and Dad made me leave."

As soon as I got to Rangers, the girls ran to me to tell me the news. They were so excited, but hadn't heard the exact wording of the new Promise.

"I do love my God, though we have rocky patches. But this means that I'm part of the journey, and that my friends can follow theirs too. It's important that we're open to everyone," one of my Christian girls commented.

An atheist girl says, "It's about time, really. I've said the Promise because it's just words. But this means I can commit to Guiding and the things I believe in - respect, helping others, kindness - without having to put in what is, for me, complete nonsense."

"I'm so proud of Girlguiding," a younger girl enthused. "I honestly thought they'd ignore us and what we said, that it was just a bit of a PR stunt, that they'd be too afraid of upsetting the older generation. But they've actually listened."

"I'm so glad I was part of this!"

"Oh, wow! Those are all the best options! They've really thought about what matters to people!"

Every single thing I've heard in the real world today has been positive, exciting and enthusiastic. Online has been different, as was M's reaction last night, but I think looking at the real-world reactions of the young members that this affects is really important!

100 Years of Tradition

In all the various responses to Girlguiding’s new Promise, there is one question that has stuck out. One question that I truly believe needs to be answered now, by everyone who believes in the organisation and what we do. One question that is being whispered by people both within and outside Girlguiding, on various sites and media outlets.

How can you abandon 100 years of tradition?

Funnily enough, that wasn’t the one question I intended to write about, but it is the one that feels most prolific and important right now. It’s the one that’s burning inside me, that I am desperate to answer on Twitter but haven’t the expertise or eloquence to answer in 140 characters.

Tradition is a beautiful thing. It’s embracing the wonderful, varied and rich heritage that we have. Tradition comes in the form of the Promise, the laws, various activities that we do, but traditions do evolve and change over time. We look back  to our traditions, but we embrace what works for us as an organisation. Tradition is important, but so is relevance.

But is the wording of the Promise the tradition, or is the act of a Promise and the beliefs it represents the important tradition? Personally, I would say the latter, but I can understand the nostalgic value of past wording.

The truth of the matter, however, is that we are not abandoning 100 years of tradition, but rather making that tradition more explicit. For the last twenty years, Girlguiding has been desperately trying to explain that “love my God” means to develop your beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be. Now, we’re actually saying what we mean, rather than alluding to it through religiously-loaded language. This is not pandering to minorities, it’s not being overly-PC, it’s simply changing the wording to what they meant in the first place.

Of course, to some, the removal of God from the Promise makes us no different to any other youth group. I beg to differ. We still promise to explore our beliefs, we promise to serve our community and help other people. The essence of our Promise is still to look outside ourselves and find value in the world around us, and to give back. That is not the aim of most other youth groups. We still strive to develop our girls and young women give them leadership opportunities, let them speak out for their respective causes. That is also not the aim of most other youth groups.

We are not abandoning 100 years of tradition, we are preserving it.

My Beliefs, my God, my Promise

I am proud to be a member of Girlguiding. I start a lot of blog posts that way, but it doesn’t make it any less true. I am proud to be a member of a worldwide family that is committed to the betterment of self and society, a family that shares common values and beliefs whilst embracing and celebrating its differences. I am proud to be part of a member organisation of WAGGGS that offers opportunities for young people as participants up to the age of 26, puts them in the driving seat and champions their voice. I am proud to be a member of an organisation that puts its members first and adapts to their needs whilst retaining its core principles.

But today, my pride is wavering...

Growing up, I was forced to go to church. I didn’t know what I believed in, whether I really believed in God or whether He was just another mythical figure like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Like many little girls, I made my Promise as a Brownie because that’s what you did as a Brownie... plus my Brown Owl never gave me much of a choice!

By the time I became a Guide, it was no longer “duty to God” but “love my God”, a concept that I found much more difficult to cope with. For me, a duty was easy; it involved polishing the brass in church, turning up at parade and saying grace on pack holiday. To love God was more personal, and a relationship that I didn’t understand with an entity I was only starting to believe as real.

As a member of Senior Section, I was more comfortable with who my God was, but still didn’t understand the concept of loving Him. I made the Promise in the spirit of commitment; I would try to love my God as best as I could, but I never knew if my beliefs were really my own or what had been forced on me as a child.
It was when I went to university and the things that followed that really changed the dynamic of my relationship with God, my beliefs and my spiritual journey. It was only when I made my Promise as a Leader that I truly meant what I was saying and understood it fully in how it related to me.

Maybe this all says more about how Leaders are discussing the Promise with their girls than the wording of the Promise itself. I mean, if I had understood that “to love my God” was equivalent to exploring spiritual beliefs then perhaps it would have been easier. Or maybe it would have made me bristle about the wording.
As an adult, I love the fact that I have friends from all sorts of backgrounds. From Guides and Scouts in France, Finland, Hong Kong and even Australia, to people from different religious backgrounds. But what upset me was when I found that friends of mine who were excellent Leaders, in areas that were short of volunteers, were told they either had to lie or leave, because there was no place in Girlguiding for atheist leaders.

It had always made me wonder. As a teacher, my own religious beliefs don’t matter when I teach RE, nor my sexual orientation matter when teaching about sex and healthy relationships. As long as I make a commitment to talk about these issues and explore them in an appropriate way that helps the young people achieve their full potential, and I provide balanced reasoning and evidence, my own beliefs are not part of that. So how is Guiding different?

Today it was confirmed that it’s not. Today, Girlguiding officially announced the rewording of the Promise. Instead of the connotation of “my God” as exploration of personal beliefs, it is explicitly stated in the new wording. Seven year old me wouldn’t have to blindly make a Promise she didn’t understand, but make one that accepts her lack of knowledge.

This new Promise is relevant to both the girls and leaders of today. It encompasses all the core values of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, and allows us to share a truly common standard with our sisters in Guiding, as alterations to the text are no longer necessary.

I have been completely and utterly shocked by some of the reactions to this news today. I am aware that change isn’t easy, and that this rewording seems (to some people) to completely change the Promise that people have made for generations. Despite the ten previous amendments to the Promise, this somehow seems the most drastic.

To see criticism and mindless comments from the general public, though upsetting, is understandable in many ways. And with some media outlets, we are never going to win. But when the vitriol comes from within (and I mean the hateful, insular comments, not just disagreement and disappointment), I start to wonder what has happened.

Speaking as a Christian, I wonder where this hatred comes from. The new Promise speaks of journeys and development, of the ever-growing and changing relationship that I (and my brothers and sisters) should have with Christ and with my father God. It is a perfect fit for what we learn as followers. And it encourages those of other faiths, those who are undecided and those who have none to explore and discover, a commitment that could potentially sow the seeds for the Holy Spirit to grow. Should we not encourage this? After all, we are told throughout the Bible that the joy of love is free will and our choice to love / worship. If adherence to God’s will and “love” for Him is prescribed without choice, discovery and growth, does it mean anything?
I also wonder how saying that those of other faiths and cultures don’t belong in Britain, that people should just go away, that there is no place for atheists in society would sit with Jesus and the apostles. I distinctly remember the story of the good Samaritan, the gospel of Matthew telling us to shine our light for all to see (and to lead our lives by way of example) and the passage of 1 Peter 3 that reminds us always to speak with kindness in our hearts, particularly when discussing matters of faith. It seems that in anger, this calling to love and kindness has been forgotten.

I know that I am not perfect, but I also want people to be aware that this vocal group are by no means representative of all Christians in Guiding. Debate is healthy and a wonderful thing, but it is also important to retain perspective and remember that we are talking about human beings with feelings!

You see, my pride in Girlguiding is not wavering as a result of the change, but as a result of people’s attitudes and reactionary statements to it. Because Girlguiding is not (and never has been) just a brand or a group of people in a pretty London building, but a family of thousands. My pride in Girlguiding is wavering because my pride in its members is wavering. Not all of them, not by a long shot, but just enough to shake my belief.

Monday, 10 June 2013


Over the last few days on Twitter, Girlguiding's official account (@Girlguiding) has been asking people to define what makes a great leader, and even to sum it up in three words.

It got me thinking about leadership and the different types of leader out there. For a start, there are politicians, teachers, business leaders, church leaders, leaders in Guiding and Scouting, supervisors and managers, heads of state, directors... the list goes on.

And in each situation, the qualities needed for effective leadership differ, as indeed they should. In fact, as a mentor and Young Leader Co-Ordinator, one of the things I stress to my mentees is that they shouldn't follow a template to become a "good leader", but rather play to their own strengths and become a valuable part of their leadership team. In one activity in the Young Leader Qualification, the girls are asked to observe other leaders and pick things that they like, things that they don't think would suit them and identify leadership styles they would like to try.

You see, just as every individual is different, so is every leader. Our personalities, skills and past experiences all contribute to how we act, react and work with our groups. Whether that be comfort in a supporting role, or a hyper-awareness of risks and danger, we all bring baggage and a lot of that can be turned to our advantage.

But in thinking of all the different leadership roles and the different approaches to leadership, is there anything in common? My gut reaction was that they were too distantly removed from each other, but yet they all involve taking responsibility and surely there are other common requirements too.

After looking carefully at the list, there was one thing that was necessary in all lines, whatever style of leadership or approach you take. And it just so happens that it's something Girlguiding puts a lot of emphasis on. The common quality is understanding the needs of those that you lead.

Whether you're a politician understanding your constituents' concerns, a teacher understanding the attainment and progress of your pupils or a business director understanding the strengths of your employees, that understanding underpins everything that you do as a leader.

It's the same in Guiding. We look at the girls and young women in our groups, look at their needs and also what they want to do. We learn to understand them, their personalities, what works for them and how they operate. We adapt our style of leadership to suit their needs, but it's all done with them in mind.

Even our Promise, the common standard to which we all commit (or work towards), is based on this key principle. It teaches us to think outside ourselves, to think about the world around us and the people around us. Right from the moment our girls start Rainbows, we are teaching them the fundamental principle of leadership; to understand others.

As they grow and develop, so does their leadership potential through the programme we offer. The girl-only space encourages exploration and self-confidence, reviewing their own progress for their yearly challenge badges in Guides, as well as the self-discipline and planning (and presentations!) required for the Baden Powell Challenge. Brownies can be sixers, Guides can be Rainbow or Brownie helpers or patrol leaders. Senior Section members have hundreds of different leadership options open to them, each age group having a few more doors opened to them, a few more skills that can be honed.

Today, I met one of my Guides in staff briefing. When I say "one of my Guides", she was one of the younger girls when I was a Young Leader. She's now a teacher. And although she is still quite hesitant and has her own brand of leadership, she told me that it's the skills she learnt back then that helped her develop her sense of self within the classroom, and that self-confidence and smaller chances to lead that led her into teaching.

It's easy to overgeneralise when speaking about leadership. To assume that a good leader needs to follow a certain recipe, but as long as we put those we are leading at the centre of our efforts, then we won't stray too far from the path.