Women’s participation in Up Helly A’: some follow-up

One of the themes of my earlier, otherwise more general, post on Up Helly A’ was the campaign to allow women and girls to march in the Lerwick event, the only one from which they are currently excluded because of their sex (see, for instance, the Shetland Times‘s report on the following week’s Nesting and Girlsta UHA). Crossing my timeline this week was a reference to a new campaign group being set up called ‘Women for Remain the Same’ – essentially, therefore, an anti-inclusion group although its ‘supporters’ are in no way limited to women. ‘Women for Remain the Same’ being open to men when it’s not open to women to join UHA squads and to join the ranks of the guizers is, perhaps, one of the odder and more perplexing aspects to all this.

Things being what they are, this is a Facebook campaign and, because I don’t subscribe to Zuckerberg’s data mining operation, I can’t see what the group says or why they’ve decided to set it up. It would seem obvious, however, that the purpose would be to illustrate that there is not ‘community support’ for the inclusion of women; and that the campaigns in that direction would therefore appear to have progressed far enough to get someone, or a group of people, somewhat rattled.

The arguments around the careful establishment of ‘useful’ groups to slow down progressive change are well-trodden ones – as a letter writer to the Shetland Times points out, there were anti-suffrage groups, too; probably all movements for change are faced with the need to overcome the sclerotic forces of conservatism.

The direction in which this blog’s sympathies run on this issue ought to be very clear.

A campaign for things to remain as they already are doesn’t readily lend itself to activism and declamatory sloganising, and it isn’t designed to get the juices running and people on the streets – indeed, its purpose is actually the reverse of this. However, the song can’t always remain the same, as Robert Plant – coincidentally appearing at this year’s HebCelt, by the way – would perhaps report in connection with his post-Led Zep career. Organisations, especially social ones – and the Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee is a social organisation – need to evolve, especially when confronted with pressures to change, or they risk becoming not only anachronistic but also ossified where they are deliberately exercising the choice not to change, once asked to do so.

If ossification is not to result, those arguing that the Lerwick UHA does not need to change need to come up with greater justification for a lack of movement than things are fine as they are. (Since they are clearly not fine.) Amongst other things, they need to say how they think allowing women and girls to march will change the character of the event. Tradition only takes us so far (and not least when women are able to march in all Shetland’s other UHAs). Furthermore, the joy of UHA night, after the pageantry and the drama of the day’s events, is the right to dress up in outrageously silly costumes, with numerous WTF? moments, entertain people in the halls with song and dance, and simply have fun. Those that want to keep things as they are need to justify why those same rights cannot be extended to women – and the answer clearly does not (and should not) lie in that this will stop lads dressing up in dresses (because I bet that it won’t). Squads dressing in fishnets and short dresses to pay homage to Tina Turner in her 80th year (Squad 25), or as 18th century society ladies to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th (Squad 36), or in pink tutus (the magnificent Swine Lake, again: Squad 42) will still not only be able to do that once women participate – but will still be doing so.

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Guizing isn’t for everyone – the night is long and, for the main squad, the whole day can be gruelling even in good weather – but stamina and fitness is no respecter of sex and, when you’re having this much fun, why would you want to choose to deny those who want to do so the opportunity to join in? And the answer to that is the same for one person as it is for 300.

Above all, people need to explain why they think it is perfectly feasible to direct girls towards achievement, and goals, and participation, and on an equal basis to boys – but direct them around the time of the Lerwick UHA into the kitchen instead of marching and guizing. Equality is nowhere unless it is everywhere; and equal rights to participate don’t take away the existing rights of others to do so.

The bigger Lerwick UHA gets and the better known it becomes, and the more people start to talk about building a wider Viking festival around the Lerwick UHA, the more questions will start to be raised about the desire to make the event ‘more public’ – surely a euphemism for allowing women and girls to march. The exclusion of women and girls from marching in the Lerwick UHA, and their confinement to roles instead in the halls, not least the kitchens, will come under ever-closer scrutiny. Those defending the status quo will need to come up with some proper answers than that things should ‘stay the same’.