A piece in today’s Times:
Up Helly Aa: End fire festival bias to prevent sexual violence, urges minister
A world-famous fire festival needs to be radically reformed to protect women and girls from sexual violence, a senior politician has said, after claims of harassment.
Women say that they have been groped and attacked during Up Helly Aa in Shetland, where groups of men dressed as Viking warriors march through the streets before setting fire to a replica longship.
At the largest of the events in Lerwick, the islands’ capital, women are banned from taking part in the main event and are instead expected to prepare food and organise parties.
Maree Todd, the MSP for the Highlands and Islands, who is also minister for childcare and early years, claimed that the unequal structure of the spectacle had fuelled misogyny and violence against women.
“It is deeply distressing to read the accounts of sexual abuse and harassment at the Up Helly Aa festival,” she said. “We know that violence against women is made possible by the gender-stereotyped world we live in. [LAF emphasis. The utterly-discredited Duluth Model.]
“Decision-makers in Shetland should not underestimate their responsibility to implement change and ensure this does not continue to be a longstanding consequence of the festival.
“The safety of women and girls must be prioritised in all future decisions relating to Up Helly Aa.”
Ms Todd claimed that change was overdue, adding: “It is essential that Up Helly Aa committees across Shetland, and the Shetland Islands council address and reflect on their role here.
“Just last year the council backed the Lerwick Up Helly Aa committee’s continued exclusion of women in squads, ruling that the decision was in line with the Equality Act 2010. This is unacceptable — the goal should always be to eliminate gender inequality, not perpetuate it.”
Alistair Carmichael, the MP for the Orkney & Shetland and former Scottish secretary, was also alarmed by the accounts. He said: “I have attended a lot of Up Helly Aa celebrations over the years and in my experience they have always been great community occasions where people of all ages and backgrounds have come together to celebrate.
“It runs completely contrary to the spirit of that for anyone to be made to feel unsafe or to have to exclude themselves from the festivities because they feel unsafe. It is unacceptable for any person to have a sense of ‘sexual entitlement’ on Up Helly Aa night or any other night.”
Sally Huband, an author and Shetland resident, raised concerns in her essay Northern Raven. She wrote: “I know of some women who have stopped going to the halls for the evening entertainment as they are tired of being sexually harassed.
“A women told me her vagina was grabbed without her consent during the festival. One account of a more serious sexual assault made me feel sick to my stomach. It is clear that some men equate the Lerwick Up Helly Aa with a night of sexual entitlement.”
Another resident said: “Every single Up Helly Aa I get touched by men.” [LAF emphasis: The claimant, presumably a woman, doesn’t want to be “touched” by men in crowds. How does she suggest that might be enforced? Is she OK with being “touched” by women?]
Shetland Islands council denied supporting the exclusion of women from the Lerwick event. A spokeswoman said: “The council cannot dictate to an organisation that it must change its membership criteria. The council is committed to gender equality and is proactively focused on creating a gender-positive employment culture with zero-tolerance towards the perpetrators of violence against women.”
Next year’s festival, due to take place in January, has been postponed because of Covid-19.
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