I have been following the ongoing debate over the issue of female participation in squads at the Lerwick Up Helly Aa junior and senior festivals. I have previously stated my personal opinion to Shetland News and The Shetland Times that women should be allowed to participate fully in the festivals if they so wish.
I have watched with concern at how the debate has taken a very poisonous turn where those for change and those opposed have become increasingly entrenched in their beliefs unwilling to listen to the other side. There is also a sense that things are now reaching a climax
This is evidenced by the clear exasperation that Peter Hamilton exhibits in his letter of 4 February It should never have come to this.
The points he makes are all fair and reasonable and he supports his assertions with facts, something that has not always been the case in this very emotive issue. However, where I personally disagree with him is his “threat” to report the Shetland Islands Council, and perhaps the organisers of the festival to various bodies for non-compliance of equality laws.
Whilst I understand the level of frustration that has provoked this course of action, I fear it cannot result in a positive outcome for the future of the festivals.
So why has it come to this? For all the dedicated commitment to Up Helly Aa that committee members put in, years of working with the torch boys and the galley boys and then sixteen years on the committee, the dismissive and disdainful attitude that the committee has exhibited for decades regarding female participation has played a powerful part in the current state of affairs.
The failure to address this issue with the ubiquitous “no comment” and plain old ignoring the issue has only served to inflame those on both sides of the argument.
However, based on the committee’s stance over the decades its recent public recognition of the issue of allowing female guizers into the festivals is a welcome development and an acknowledgement of the growing opinion among many that change should be considered.
If the committee are genuine in their intent to discuss the matter seriously then they should be commended for it. However, inaction or feet dragging should not be an option.
The committee should schedule a meeting as soon as possible and announce the date. In addition, to ensure that all stakeholders are able to express their opinions, the meeting should take the form of a public forum. This will ensure that all those who wish to express an opinion can do so.
The meeting should be open to all and not confined to the committee and The Up Helly Aa for Aa group as, for all their great ongoing efforts, the latter group does not speak for all those wishing to see change. Those wishing to speak could receive a number as they enter the meeting ensuring that many opinions are heard. Such a meeting will at least allow a public airing of the strength of feeling on both sides and help to correct the impression that those who want to see change are being ignored.
However, if change is to come it must come from the participants of the festival themselves. Threatening the use of legal action runs the risk of creating ill will and division that will make the current debate seem like kids play. If legal action results in the festival organisers having to decide between allowing female participation or severing their relationship with the Shetland Islands Council there may be other negative consequences.
What good will it do for the festival to lose the use of the town hall or the burning site? What good will come if the jarl squad cannot visit the primary schools? What good will it do if there are hosts and hostesses who decide to no longer offer their hospitality at the other halls around the town? The same could be asked of the committee, the torch and galley boys, and the guizers themselves.
I strongly believe that everyone, male, female and LGBTQ, who meets the residency requirement should be allowed to participate fully and I also believe that the day will come when this welcome change will happen.
But it must come by changing the hearts and minds of the festival organisers and participants themselves. I believe that opinions are changing and that with every year that passes more and more guizers are open to change.
In addition to presenting arguments to the committee those who wish to see change should appeal directly to the guizers themselves. How many people who wish to see change have asked to speak at a squad meeting? Be it sons, daughters, sisters, or mothers of squad members, asking to address a meeting and expressing their opinion could be very persuasive. The decision on female participation will be decided, not by the committee, but by a mass meeting of guizers.
All major decisions are made this way with the committee only making recommendations. So, persuading the guizers to vote for full female participation is the best way to get the change many want. Doing it this way will result in a healthier festival going forward into the future.
Former member registered squad No1