Viewpoint / Everyone is entitled to equal rights

I often delight in boring my students with the unique social, cultural and political status of Shetland, but the debate around (Lerwick) Up Helly Aa leaves me feeling ashamed, writes former Brae resident Karl Johnson.

Karl Johnson.

THERE is a need for greater education and public awareness on what constitutes gender discrimination, racism and how upholding the status quo can perpetuate inequality and breed animosity.

There is also a dereliction of duty on the part of Shetland’s MSP, council, police force and other organisations, with regards to their responsibility to recognise and challenge this. Whether this is done intentionally or not, does not justify their complicity or the disservice they do to the community.

It can be difficult to have these kinds of conversations, but it is by learning together and listening to one another respectfully that we move forward in a positive way and set an example to others.

From what the level of debate on social media and in open letters has shown thus far, public discourse on the matter is equal parts constructive, combative and counterproductive on both sides. This needs to shift away from rhetoric which evidences nothing and challenging one another; instead focussing on engaging in open and respectful dialogue, and appreciating the truth of wider issues of discrimination, exclusion, power imbalance and obstruction.


While the debate – and note that it is not a ‘recent’ debate, but one which has been ongoing in Shetland for decades – understandably focuses on Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, it also applies in differing degrees across all communities in our isles.

Variations of the ‘men are men, women are women’ line are outdated notions which reinforce harmful messages about supposedly masculine and feminine roles, and stereotypes that become mistaken for fact. Everyone is entitled to equal rights and has an equal amount of potential in what they can achieve, regardless of their gender. It is only social structures and the institutions of society which create and benefit from inequality.

The Equality Act (2010) sets out the different ways it’s illegal – not to say immoral – to treat other people in relation to what are known as ‘protected characteristics’, e.g., their age, gender, sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and if they have a disability. Under the law, Scottish Ministers, councils, police authorities and others are obliged to observe and uphold the following:

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  • Direct discrimination occurs where a person is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, such as their sex/gender. Indirect discrimination occurs where a provision, criterion or practice (in relation to a protected characteristic) cannot be shown to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
  • A person must not, in the exercise of a public function that is not the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public, do anything that constitutes discrimination.
  • A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act; advance equality of opportunity; foster good relations and promote understanding. A person who is not a public authority but who exercises public functions must, in the exercise of those functions, have due regard to these matters.

Up Helly Aa in any parish – but most especially Lerwick – is a public event. It is taught to and celebrated by schoolchildren. It’s in public buildings; the Town Hall; New York, and; on local/national/international news media. The day after Lerwick UHA is a public holiday across the isles, and it is supported by and capitalised upon by the SIC and a variety of other bodies in the public eye.

The Lerwick UHA website, and a recent feature in The New Shetlanderhighlight some supporters/donors. They are (to varying degrees) actively involved in, promote and benefit from UHA and understandably support the status quo to avoid risk.


The suggestion that no public money is involved is frankly laughable. These organisations/individuals are complicit in the exclusion of women, and (as other UHAs are) of allowing homophobia, transphobia and racism to go unchallenged.

UHA, as a public event, and its supporters/donors, speak for the community and set an example. It’s important to recognise the power of words and images in our society, and the impact they have. For example:

  • Describing people who voice a different opinion as “do-gooders” who are “wittering-on” has misogynistic undertones in the association of ‘gossiping’ or ‘complaining’ as stereotypically feminine traits. It also suggests a lack of mature, respectful engagement on the part of those who speak in such terms.
  • Suggesting that other issues are more important seeks to avoid individual reflection and disarm those appealing for change. Social issues co-exist in an interlocked system, not a hierarchy.
  • Refusing to respond to or avoiding participation altogether in this debate – in the case of those who have an obligation to participate due to their role in the community – is a method of maintaining the status quo and is cowardly and irresponsible.
  • Framing the issues in terms of ‘us vs them’ or of ‘Shetlanders vs incomers’ is inflammatory and seeks to position a majority based on innocuous, subjective characteristic or more vocal/visible presence as somehow being ‘right’. It eschews rational and evidenced reasoning in favour of prejudice.
  • Blackface is racist. The oppressive practice harks back to the derogatory minstrel acts which made a mockery of black people. This caricature is deeply offensive and unacceptable in civilised society.

These are examples of behaviour that harms outside perception of Shetland. Raising these issues and seeking to end such exclusionary practices are not harmful to our isles, but instead are an attempt to protect and improve them.


Arguments of ‘format’ and ‘things working as they are’ are meaningless. Traditions change (especially Victorian inventions reshaped and repurposed over generations) as the world changes, and so as attitudes must also change. Morality is not upheld based on the results of a poll, or merely determined by those who retain the power to enact change.

If my first-year students, my 12 year-old cousin and my five year-old niece can understand this, then so can others. I do not want to feel shame for Shetland.

Karl Johnson is a lecturer in public sociology at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. A former pupil of Brae High School, he is also a special consultant on social affairs for the 13th edition of the Collins English Dictionary (definitions relating to gender and sexuality).

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