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Letters / Future-proofing the festival?

Despite his best intentions, Malcolm Bell, Shetland Island’s Council convener, has now contributed to the debate on the council’s support for Lerwick Up Helly Aa’s discrimination against women (Convener delivers sharp riposte to UHA campaigner over council’s equality dutiesShetland News 25 February 2022).

Some corrections are now required, and some omissions in his response need highlighted that are of broader importance to Shetland.

First and foremost, the convener is quoted as noting the Up-Helly-Aa’s committee have indicated a willingness to engage with Up Helly Aa for Aa, as he has encouraged.

This may be news to Up Helly Aa for Aa. They have found a professional mediator to chair the talks. They know who they will send. They are waiting for the committee to reply with a date. A reply clearly indicating a willingness to meet up soon is overdue. It would be polite. A couple of the boys can surely go and have a listen and report back to the rest. Such a step does not need a mass meeting first.

Then we have the matter of the council’s internal legal advice. As he has been unwilling to share it, it is difficult to tell how partial it may be. That is partial in both senses of the word.  We know it relates to an aspect of the 2010 Equalities Act.

But other parts of this act are completely unambiguous. Crucially, the act applies to “every aspect” of the council’s work. “Every aspect” here meaning every aspect, Malcolm. Which bit of that can be contested?  And the equalities duty is, erm, a duty to promote equalities.

This is why, for example, councils on the west coast of Scotland do not host civic ceremonies for the all-male Orange Order, whether or not their conveners are masons.

It appears Malcolm Bell did not appreciate me parodying his position on the presence of women at the civic reception he hosts for the all-male Jarl Squad.  This plainly gives them, but not the women present, the freedom of Lerwick.

It is “patronising and demeaning” of him to pretend the women present are there on “an equal basis” to the all-male Jarl squad, in whose honour the event is being held. My calling the women present “their women”, successfully targeted Malcolm’s patriarchal blind spot into giving a response.

If our council cannot recognise it blatantly supports discrimination against women and girls, and won’t even debate it, what hope is there for other equalities issues?

In his only letter to me, Malcolm Bell chooses to ignore the disconcerting voices of others I included in my last letter to him, in which I made the following direct appeal: “Malcolm, please acknowledge there is a serious problem in Shetland culture and act accordingly.”

So, onto the serious problem:

“Every single UHA I get touched by men. It gets justified with: “they’re just drunk, they mean no harm.”

This from Shetland’s harrowing #WisToo testimony. It is story 34 of 66.  I shared this to re-emphasise my concern that the statistics for reported sexual assaults in Shetland last year, per head of population, are 50 per cent greater than those in Orkney.

Yes, you read that right, Shetland’s reported sexual crimes are 50 per cent greater than our less Viking-male-pillaging-obsessed neighbours. Of 32 reporting areas across Scotland, Shetland is 8th highest, and Orkney third lowest.

A young male Shetlander tells me five of his female friends say unwelcome physical attention, also known as sexual assault, is their experience of Up Helly Aa too.

Do we want Up Helly Aa to continue as a grope-fest for older men?  Or is it time it was made more inclusive and safer?

I am beginning to worry some of the men involved do not want mixed squads because it will mean they will finally have to call out their friend’s unacceptable behaviours. But that is exactly what is needed.  Progress will have been made when women no longer warn their daughters to keep aaf the squad busses.

Let’s balance this up by hearing from some other young Shetlanders:

Boy 1.   
Whit do you tink aboot awe da sh*t in da Shetland News on Facebook about da Lerrick Up Helly Aa ?

Boy 2.        
It’s f*cking sh*t

Boy 1
If those bitches fae sooth tink they are going to change our culture and tradition they can jist pi*s aff on da NorthLink where they came fae.

Boy 2
(nodded in agreement).

This exchange was overheard by one of the members of Up Helly Aa for Aa in a lunch queue in The Clickimin. She estimated the boys to have been in first or second year at the Anderson High. She was frightened by the venom with which their views were expressed.

I shared this with Malcolm Bell to help him see that misogyny and Shetland’s xenophobic racism are intertwined. These boys have been thoroughly indoctrinated in a way that ties toxic masculinity tightly together with a deeply disturbing version of Shetland identity.  They appear to believe their Viking ancestry entitles them to demean women who have lived in Shetland longer than they have.  This should not be happening.  Where did they learn to think like this?  How will they behave as men?

The marketing slogan ‘Shetland: Islands of Opportunity’ sits poorly against these deep-set intergenerationally ingrained attitudes. Every time I hear people in positions of power lament the sometimes toxic nature of the Lerwick UHA debate on social media, I remember this: it is pretty much only one side whose supporters have had their posts taken down on local media commentary.

Comments telling those wanting equality that they are not true Shetlanders, and should simply leave, are sadly all too common.

Here is the last voice I sent to Malcolm to encourage him to acknowledge there is a serious problem in Shetland culture and act accordingly:

“Growing up as a transgender child in Shetland, each year Up Helly Aa told me that being myself wasn’t allowed.  With the rigid way boys are celebrated for being Viking warriors, and girls for being princesses, other children were sent the message we weren’t good enough.

And when squads put on acts and dress in ways which mock gay and transgender people it makes it harder for us to live with dignity and acceptance in Shetland. If the culture of Up Helly Aa doesn’t change to treat LGBTQ+ self-expression as something to be respected not ridiculed, it’ll continue to teach children that they aren’t equal.  We need to challenge homophobia and transphobia in our communities instead of staying quiet.”

Most of us remember the pains and awkwardness of growing up, but pressure to conform means these are felt harder by some than others, with devastating consequences for teenage mental health etc.  The exclusion of women from Lerwick Up Helly Aa can send a hostile message to those who do not easily fit into tightly policed norms and already feel marginalised.

Image shared by Shetland Women’s Aid on 9 December 2021 during the United Nation’s 16 days of activism against violence against women.

Equality is celebrated in modern day Scandinavia, so why not in Lerwick?  Some people are LGBTQ+. This is 2022, not 1970.  Get over it.

Is enough seriously being done in our schools to counter discrimination, and teach our bairns to call out sexism, racism, xenophobia, transphobia and homophobia when they hear it?  We know it is not.  Why not?  Well, to recognise there is a problem now, and indeed to recall the social divide that followed the arrival of the Lerrick Scotties, is almost breaking a taboo.  There are no hierarchies in Shetland. Really? How come the Guizer Jarl is only ever picked from certain squads then?

Is it too much to expect the organisers of a “community festival” to tell participants not to put on acts that demean people in those ways?  They have managed it for the use of black face, so why not call time on the rest?

It is fairly simple, once you get your head around it. Whatever the hostesses and hosts want to allow in their private parties, outdated acts that play on and reinforce discrimination reflect poorly on the community festival as a whole. If a squad transgresses, let them sit oot a year.  That, and kicking out the men that don’t keep their hands to themselves, would make plenty room for women to join in.

One difficulty with island life is that it can be hard to acknowledge problems.  But it you can’t acknowledge them, you can’t deal with them.

The convener’s response ended with him bringing up the murder of Sarah Everard. Context is all. It was in response to me having done so. Why did I?

It took the Up-Helly-Aa committee two weeks to ban black face after the murder of George Floyd, a man.

Next week will see a year having passed since the murder of Sarah Everard, a women. Double standards are clearly evident here.  Yes, it is distasteful to raise this, but so is the failure to address discrimination in a community festival when the community in question does not want to consider why it may have such high rates of reported sexual crime.

If more than half of the 15 future jarls want to end the discrimination against women and girls, they simply need to say so.  That is how, during lockdown, they banned the use of black face. They didn’t need a mass meeting first.

Malcom Bell was quoted as stating: “Evidence round the nature, extent and causes of crime are complex, and I do not believe it is reasonable or appropriate for you to, so freely, imply causal links to such appalling crimes”.  Why then did the committee ban black face at all I wonder?  Could it be because tolerating racism results in racist assaults and murders?  What of tolerating sexism then?

Yes, the causes of crime are complex.  But here is a statement from CoSLA [Convention of Scottish Local Authorities] and the Scottish Government’s EQUALLY SAFE strategy delivery plan that is not: “Gender inequality is a root cause of violence against women and girls.”

So, Malcolm, where we act to reduce gender inequality, and gender stereotyping, we act to reduce gender based violence. Simples.  And that is why the next convener will let the Up Helly Aa committee know there has to be change.

In the days following Sarah Everard’s murder countless women and women’s organisations said violence against women and girls was an epidemic that men had to deal with.  We do not deal with it through inaction, silence or delay.

Here is part of how elected councillors across Scotland are encouraged to deal with it: Champion approaches that ensure men and boys are encouraged and supported to understand the gendered nature of VAWG [Violence against women and girls], promote gender equality, and challenge the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs that underpin the continuing prevalence of VAWG across all its forms.

Just where are the attitudes and beliefs forming in the minds of the young boys in Lerwick quoted above being challenged?  Not in the Lerwick Town Hall it seems, which does not care to mark the United Nation’s 16 days of activism against violence against women.

And where is gender equality being promoted in Lerwick on the last Tuesday in January?  Same answer.

That being perfectly clear now, I again join Malcolm Bell, the convener of Shetland Islands Council in calling for Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee to quickly set a date in the near future to meet with the representatives from Up Helly Aa for Aa.

They are good community minded people who grew up loving Up Helly Aa and are very keen to help the committee with the long overdue task of future-proofing the festival.  The men on the committee will not be able to achieve this on their own.

A safer and inclusive Lerwick Up Helly Aa, and a happier, safer and inclusive Shetland are possible.  It is time to acknowledge the need for action and get on with it.  Set a date lads, and make it soon.

Peter Hamilton
Sundibanks