Girl Scouts and Hijabs

February 16, 2014
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I was a Girl Scout in the U.S. for 10 years, from the age of six until present day. I grew up with it, and it became something that is very important to my life—I even decided to try for my Gold Award. But this year, thanks to my mother’s work, I was lucky enough to be able to live in England, so I became involved with Girl Guiding. It’s been a very interesting and fulfilling international experience, being able to see the huge similarities and quirky differences between the organizations. For instance, Girl Scouts have one “Law” with twelve lines, if I remember correctly. I was astonished to discover that the Guides have seven laws. That seemed excessive to me, until I discovered that they were only one or two lines, and essentially the same as the Scout Law, but phrased differently. Their ranks are also different to me: I was so used to Daisy, Brownie, Junior, Cadette, Senior, and Ambassador that it still disconcerts me to hear about Rainbows, Brownies, Guides, and Senior Section. Still, those are differences of semantics. What I am concerned with at the moment could be written of as semantics as well, but I’m not convinced. Here’s what happened: at my first meeting I was handed a sheet of paper with uniform options on it. There was a nice, if plain array of T-shirts, rugby shirts, hoodies, hats, and… hijabs.

It probably shouldn’t have surprised me so much. Here I live in a predominantly muslim neighborhood (2 mosques within walking distance) and hijabs and burkas are commonplace. The idea of a girl showing up to a Guides meeting in a hijab isn’t odd at all, and in fact in my volunteer work with primary school children nearly all their mothers wear hijabs. On the other hand, in my U.S. hometown, such a thing would turn heads—mostly, I suspect, because of our lack of diversity (at the last census we had a 4.18% African-American and 0.05% Asian population). It had never even occurred to me that an organization like Girl Scouts or Girl Guides would make it a part of official uniform.

To be clear, the Girl Scouts haven’t. I searched the online store to make sure. Then I searched the web in general for anything related to Girl Scouts and hijabs. There were plenty of thriving troops of hijab-wearing girls, but no items for sale. Why? Girl Scout and Girl Guides are very similar organizations in comparable countries, so the question becomes, why not?

According to the 2011 census, 4.8% of the UK’s total population is Muslim, compared to an estimated 0.8% in the US, which might account for the difference. Practically speaking, the hijabs might not sell as well West of the Atlantic. Still, that can’t account for the whole of it. Considering the US has a much larger population than the UK, our Islamic populations are roughly comparable—both in the upper 2 millions (though of course the methods of practicing Islam will vary from community to community). A simple Google search was enough to tell me that there are enough hijab-wearing Girl Scouts to make the venture at least as profitable as some of the headbands and socks they sell in abundance. They have uniforms for your American Girl Doll, for goodness’ sake.

So if it’s not a matter of profit, maybe it’s because Girl Scouts are a secular organization. That’s the best explanation I can come up with so far. But unfortunately, that gets us into what has, for me, always been the most uncomfortable and contradictory aspect of the Girl Scouts: religion. On the subject of faith, the official webs site says, “[W]hile a secular organization, Girl Scouts has, since the movement began, encouraged girls to take spiritual journeys via their faiths’ religious recognitions.” They even offer a pin which members can earn every year for developing their religious beliefs. That said, the organization is, in my experience, notably less secular and more Christian than Girl Guides. The example that comes to mind is the “Promise”—a short pledge which is repeated at meetings and/or official events. This is the Girl Scout version:

On my honor, I will try:

To serve God and my country

To help people at all times

And to live by the Girl Scout law.

And the newly updated Guides promise?

I promise that I will do my best:

To be true to myself and develop my beliefs

To serve the Queen and my community

To help other people

And to keep the Guide Law.

So, basically the same promise, but with one major difference. And yes, I’ve always been aware that Scouts are allowed to replace the word ‘God’ with anything more appropriate to their beliefs—say, ‘Buddha’ or even simply ‘The Universe’. Yet the promise still assumes that girls will be Christian, and maybe it’s because I grew up in the Bible Belt, but I have never known of anyone actually exercising this right. There are plenty of other Christian-centric Girl Scout practices, from the requirement to say (usually specifically Christian) Grace before meals to Harry Potter books being banned at one camp due to their supposedly occult leanings. The truth of the matter is that, no matter their official policy, mainstream Girl Scouts are remarkably Christian.

By the way, it should go without saying that anyone’s personal opinion on whether the custom of wearing a hijab is “right” or “wrong” is completely not the issue here. I’m talking about acknowledging the diversity of a multicultural organization. The addition of a hijab or head scarf to the ever-growing catalogue of Girl Scout apparel would be less obtrusive than all of the Christianity-related aspects I’ve listed above. The UK Scouts, a coed organization somewhat similar to Guides, even introduced a practical “hoodie dress” for Muslim girls. These examples show us that it wouldn’t force a religion on anyone, and I’m sure most people wouldn’t be aware it had happened. It would simply give Muslim girls the option to be dressed from head to toe in Girl Scout apparel, just like their friends of other belief systems. That’s if their parents are willing to spring for the extra $7, of course.

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