Shetland’s Male-Dominated Public Sphere

The dominance of men in Shetland’s public sphere is a phenomenon I have been increasingly concerned about over the last few years as I’ve grown more politically aware.  Speculating on the reasons why this is the case would most likely result in an ignorant and uninformed conclusion without proper research, so I will not attempt to do so.  However I do want to highlight several areas where I see a problem.

In terms of political representation, Shetland is blatantly governed by men.  Every single Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament the islands have elected have been men.  Perhaps this is because few women even make it onto the ballot paper – last year I wrote a letter to the Shetland News outlining the problem:

   “With the selection of party candidates for the upcoming election a relatively topical issue, I decided to take a look back at previous elections to see which parties normally field candidates for Shetland and Orkney.
   Upon doing so I was shocked to discover that every party’s candidate has been a man since at least 1997. There hasn’t been a single woman on the ballot paper throughout all this time.
Wondering whether this was just a fluke, I had a look at Shetland’s constituency for the last four Scottish Parliament elections. In the 1999 and 2003 elections every candidate was a man, while in the 2007 and 2011 elections all the candidates except one were men, the woman both times put forward by the SNP.
   To compare this nationally: 20 per cent of Scottish MPs and 33 per cent of MSPs are women, suggesting that at least a fifth of constituencies had at least one woman on the ballot paper.”

I added:

   “Thus far only the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have announced their candidates for this May’s election, both of whom are men.
   I will be keeping a close eye on future announcements from Labour, the Conservatives, UKIP and any other parties to see whether they will allow yet another election to be contested entirely by men.”

Unfortunately, the Labour, Conservative and UKIP candidates all proved, once again, to be men, making 2015 the fifth Westminster election in a row in which there was not a single woman on the ballot paper.  Although still overwhelmingly men, candidates for the Scottish Parliament’s Shetland constituency have continued to see better balance; for example, Labour fielded the excellent Robina Barton in last May’s election.  Nevertheless, 94% of votes ultimately went to male candidates.

As I stated in the letter, the same problem exists in the Shetland Islands Council (SIC):

“I discovered that only three of the 22 councillors are women – just 13.6 per cent. This is below the still shockingly small national average of 24.3 per cent.”

This inequality also includes leadership positions, with both the current Convenor and Political Leader of the Council being men.  As far as I’m aware, this has always been the case.

The same trend occurs if you look into the Shetland Charitable Trust, arguably the second most important public institution across the islands, controlling significant income from oil revenues.  The trustees are appointed from across Shetland society and include individuals with a background in the SIC (including current serving councillors), the police force, the NHS, the Church of Scotland, crofting and marine policy.  A good range of expertise, but unfortunately only two of the 14 are women.  At 14.2% this is virtually the same proportion as the SIC’s 13.6%.  For an organisation intended to provide funding for charitable causes and projects across the isles, this is a stark gap of experience and background.

The dominance of men also seems to include the press.  The majority of journalists in the Shetland Times and Shetland News appear to be men – although granted, this isn’t unusual in a national context.  It’s also true that, although the majority of The Shetland Times’ editors have been men, between 1990 and 2006 it did have a woman editor in Vaila Wishart.  Nevertheless, the current news team of the Shetland Times appears to consist entirely of men.

Moreover, if you take newspapers as a key forum for debate, the pattern continues.  In the most recent publication of the Shetland Times there were eight letters submitted to the editor, all written by men. (Interestingly, six were about the EU Referendum, with four of the six expressing support for Brexit, despite the fact that almost 57% of Shetlanders voted remain.  Is the male-dominance of the public sphere creating a right-wing, eurosceptic echo chamber?).  Similarly, all of the most recent contributions to the Shetland News letters page were penned by men.  Indeed, these pages tend to feature the same men, arguing with the same people, again and again.  In my experience the Facebook comments of the news outlets see more representative contributions – of both gender and age – but these by their nature are less public.

Perhaps the greatest example of all is the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland’s most famous cultural festival.  Women are prohibited from taking part in the prestigious Jarl Squads which lead the procession, ceremonially burn the Viking longship and tour across Shetland.  Their role is instead confined to catering.  The satirical website Da Bonxie recently mocked this, stating:

  1.  Up Helly-Aa is the perfect time to reflect on your failed marriage or relationship and use the opportunity to freely cheat on your partner.
     Lerwick Up Helly-Aa famously bans women from being in squads, so your indiscretions can be completely secret! Better yet, most Shetland women know it’s going on but no-one seems to care! It’s amazing!.
  2.  Up Helly-Aa is a truly special night for women. Not only do they get to let their husbands off the hook as we noted above, they also get to do housework in their glad rags!
    As women are banned from being in a squad, they attend one of 11 halls throughout the town. At these halls, they’re expected to clean, serve, cook, and help men cheat on their wives. Sounds great? Well get doubly excited ladies – you get to do all of this in your best dress and high heels! Incredible!

The Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa is allowed to be discriminatory in this way because, as a private club, it is not bound by equalities legislation.  The issue is becoming a matter of increasing discussion, with a recent (admittedly poorly-attended) Althing debate ending with a vote in favour of gender equality.  More promisingly, the country Up-Helly-Aa festivals allow women to take part, with the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa even seeing its first female Guizer Jarl in 2015.  Yet, with Lerwick’s Up-Helly-Aa continuing to be the largest of the festivals and possessing the most status, there is still a long way to go for gender equality.  This is not so simple as a misogynistic elite preventing progress, either – there is significant support among the public for maintaining the traditions, as evidenced by this Facebook comment thread.

There are no doubt other areas in Shetland life where gender inequality is also prevalent.  However, I do need to stress that, in spite of this indisputable male-domination of the public sphere, as a whole I do not think Shetland society is significantly more patriarchal than the rest of Scotland or Britain.  Women are as active in the workforce as anywhere else, play key roles in Shetland’s cultural scene, such as in music and literature, are reasonably well-represented in professions including teaching and healthcare, and social attitudes are not generally different to elsewhere.  This makes the male hegemony of several public institutions all the more perplexing, but perhaps also suggests change would not be too difficult to achieve.

Having illustrated the problem, at some point I will probably write a follow-up post in which I try to explain the reasons behind this.  I’ve recently discovered a book called Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrams, the former Professor of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, which looks like a fascinating read I hope will broaden my understanding of gender relations in Shetland.

If you’re reading this and you have any ideas/comments relating to what I’ve written about, I’d be very eagar to hear them!

If Yes Scotland Had Focused on Immigration

I won’t be the only person seeing a lot of comparisons between the Scottish independence referendum two years ago and the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.  Here’s another, played out as a hypothetical scenario:

So, roll-back to 2014.  A referendum has been called on Scotland’s membership of the UK in which only those born in Scotland have the right to vote, disenfranchising 400,000 fellow British citizens born in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.  The pro-independence campaign, Yes Scotland, losing the economic argument, believes it can instead deliver a victory by focusing on the threat of immigration, allowed by the freedom of movement within the UK.   It berates the Scottish government for allowing 33,000 British citizens to enter the country each year, claiming the country is too full, or that Scottish culture is being eroded by these incomers, who don’t even bother to learn Gaelic or Scots.  Many Scots no longer feel as though they recognise their own country anymore.  Yes Scotland argues that the campaign does not have a problem with immigration in principle, but do we really need so many British people entering Scotland?  Furthermore, their religion is incompatible with Scottish values.  Anglicanism is too foreign for this Presbyterian nation, and the presence of Anglicans in our country will result in greater social upheaval.

Yes Scotland hopes the economic argument will prove their greatest asset.  They argue that the Brits who are crossing north of the border are too unskilled, taking all our Scottish jobs, deflating prices, and bringing unsatisfactory social conditions with them – like, say, HIV infections.  They argue Scotland should be able to take in only those who will contribute to society, which only coincidentally happens to be the wealthier Brits earning a certain income.  It does not seem to matter whether these immigrants may be married to Scots, or have family in Scotland.  Relatedly, they seek to make the case that leaving the UK will help Scotland’s public services.  Despite the fact several of the leading figures in Yes Scotland are on record for seeking public spending cuts – some of them actually oversaw such cuts – and the end of public welfare, they argue that British immigrants put too much strain on these key services, such as healthcare and schools.

The natural conclusion, then, it to vote Yes so Scotland can regain control and take its country back.  Ordinary Scots have had enough of the Scottish Government doing nothing to stem the endless flow of migrants entering our country through England.  We can only achieve this by establishing an Australian-style points system, placing illegal Brits into internment camps for years before forcibly deporting them south of the border.  Scotland is a great country, and will be greater if we vote Yes.

*

This sounds absurd, and outright offensive, right?  So how come it’s seen as acceptable by a vast proportion of people when we use these terms and style of language to talk about fellow Europeans?

 

 

 

Visiting Culloden Battlefield

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I recently visited the site of the Battle of Culloden, the final battle of the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion against the British government and Hanoverian dynasty.  Located a few miles east of Inverness, I had long appreciated the importance of this location, having studied the rebellion both at school and at university.  Here – so the narrative goes – the Jacobite Highlanders engaged in a valiant last stand against the British redcoat army, who had pursued them north from their advances into England the previous year.  It marked the end of Charles Stuart’s, or Bonnie Prince Charlies’s, rebellion, and the end of a fifty-year-long attempt to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne.  The Jacobite defeat also led to a government campaign to pacify the Highlands, dismantling the clan system of governance and suppressing Highland culture through banning clan tartans and suppressing the use of the Gaelic language.

So, a very important moment in Scottish history.  For a site which was essentially left over two centuries as a field full of mass graves, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  However the visitor centre, opened in 2007, does an expert job of providing the historical background for the battle.  There are the standard museum displays showing Jacobite- and Hanoverian-branded items, 18th-century weapons, clothing and so on, annotated by boards chronologically detailing the events of the rebellion.  These are interspersed with more visual illustrations of the conflict, including an animated map showing the movement of armies throughout the eight-month insurrection, an instalment which particularly appealed to me.  Perhaps the best design decision was to display the opposing narratives of each army on either side of the wall, combining primary sources from soldiers with the wider historical context.  At the end of this rather traditional museum experience, although expertly put together, we entered a room with video footage of a battle re-enactment projected on all four walls.  With surround-sound, it felt as though we were in the centre of the battle itself.  We watched and listened as the armies lined up against one another, began to fire cannons, and finally as the Jacobites charged into the slaughter.

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Afterwards, we were able to explore the battlefield itself, guided by useful – if temperamental – audio headsets.  These were helpful as it’s difficult to appreciate how the field would have looked during the battle, a problem worsened by the fact that the battle site was simply a random field neither side had particularly chosen.  I had always imagined a grander setting for the end of the rebellion.  We followed paths cut through the field, including two particularly long paths along the army lines, giving a sense of how many people fought in the field that day (15,000 in all).  These were annotated by flags to illustrate the distance between the opposing forces as they lined against one another.

The most shocking and, for me, unexpected feature of the battlefield were the mass graves.  I hadn’t realised the bodies, overwhelmingly Jacobite (about 1,500 compared to 50 on the government side) had been buried on the battlefield itself.  I was touched to discover that they been buried by clan; at least the governing army awarded them that final respect.  These would have remained anonymous mounds had it not been for the local landowner Duncan Forbes who, in 1881, placed stones marking the clan buried in each grave.  Somewhat amusingly, a stone described these graves as marking the brave Highland soldiers who had fought against the ‘English’, despite many clans having actually fought on the government side, most notably the Campbells.  I found it interesting how Forbes, perhaps along with many of his Victorian contemporaries, had chosen to remember the battle.  Through a celtic romanticist prism, the battle may have appeared as a final showdown between English/British modernity and Scottish traditionalism.

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By Shadowgate, via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, the conflict had even less nationalistic undertones than I had been led to believe.  After seizing Edinburgh, Prince Charles was urged by several nobles to reconvene the Scottish Parliament, abolished in 1707, and to consolidate Jacobite control over Scotland.  Charles, however, had no interest in such an action and instead pushed southward into England.  While there were undoubtedly elements of conflict between Scottish and English identity, it seemed to me that the most useful means of framing the uprising is a dynastic power-struggle precipitated by political disagreement over the role of the monarchy, with the British government favouring a Whiggish, constitutional view, and the Jacobites arguing in favour of the divine right of kings.  It’s fascinating how many different historical angles can be applied to the conflict.  The role of the clans and their relationships with the state must also be considered: did the uprising constitute the final assertion of the dominance of the British state and the end of clan sovereignty?

I would highly recommend a visit to the Culloden battlefield to anyone that finds themselves in the Inverness area.  It would be of interest to both avid historians and the less knowledgeable alike, bringing to life this crucially important episode of Scottish history.

 

Who are the Nationalists in Scotland?

Like most people in Scotland, I have been thinking a lot about nationalism over the last few years.  Scottish politics has been dominated by the independence debate, a state of affairs which shows no sign of receding; last week’s election merely confirmed this trend, seeing the Scottish Parliament dominated by the Scottish National Party and the unashamedly pro-British Conservative Party.

I am particularly interested in the positions taken by parties with a clear stance on the debate yet who do not identify as nationalists – most prominently, Labour and the Greens.  Most Green activists recognise they are allied to a nationalistic cause in pursuing independence, but justify this ambition by emphasising the possibilities for social justice and decentralisation independence could bring.  Labour, however, has seemed to portray itself as fighting against an exclusively nationalistic cause. Their support for the Union rests on the possibilities of pooling and sharing resources and workers’ solidarity across the British state.  This is a completely valid and perhaps even noble outlook – although not one I find very convincing – but it is not, at its heart, anti-nationalist.

To be anti-nationalist, the British state the Labour Party supports would have to be a non-nationalistic identity, whereas it instead, like most states, derives legitimacy from continually-enforced state nationalism.  The only difference is that this nationalism is British rather than Scottish.   Many in Labour pretend the debate in Scotland is between nationalism and anti-nationalism rather than between two competing nationalisms.  This is why I have found Labour’s position so unconvincing and disingenuous in recent years; they have presented the Union as an entity which supersedes ‘petty nationalism’ rather than advancing its own variety of it, while the Greens on the other side of the debate have had to constantly defend their association with a nationalist cause.  If you support either an independent Scotland or a British state you are supporting a nationalist cause, even if for non-nationalistic reasons.  The only anti-nationalist position would be to advocate a stateless society – or, perhaps, a federal European/world state which dissolves national boundaries.

By writing this short ramble I don’t mean to argue there is no valid basis for support of the Union, just as I believe there is a valid basis for supporting Scottish independence.  What is not valid is to contrast this debate as one between the forces of nationalism and of opposition to nationalism; whether we like it or not, two nationalisms are in fierce competition for Scotland’s future.  Each side is supported by genuine non-nationalist arguments and viewpoints, but it is dishonest to claim these avoid propping up a nationalist vision for statehood.

Am I a Terrorist?

The UK’s Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offence to:

(a) distribute or circulate a terrorist publication;
(b) give, sell or lend such a publication;
(c) offer such a publication for sale or loan;
(d) provide a service to others that enables them to obtain, read, listen to or look at such a publication, or to acquire it by means of a gift, sale or loan;
(e) transmits the contents of such a publication electronically; or
(f) have such a publication in his possession with a view to its becoming the subject of conduct falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (e).

This is almost certainly the reason that the British Library has decided against including Taliban documents within its archives, as reported by Al Jazeera.  Despite the Library believing there is a clear academic value in these documents, it has engaged in an act of self-censorship over fear of prosecution, whether for itself or for researchers accessing these documents.

This is a problem.  I have always known vaguely that the UK’s anti-terrorism laws, introduced during Tony Blair’s Labour government following the 9/11 attacks and subsequently strengthened since, are stringent and widespread.  I have only examined the law in depth, however, after being alerted to it by that Al Jazeera article.  It also brought my attention to the case of Rizwaan Sabir, who writes here of being arrested in 2008 as a masters student for downloading a document titled ‘An Al-Qaeda Training Manual’ from the US Department of Justice website to aid his research.  The case against him collapsed and he was rightfully granted compensation, but this case highlights the how these laws are open to abuse.  I have no doubt that similar instances have since occurred.

I’m beginning to wonder whether I myself might even have accessed documents for research purposes which would come under suspicion.  Earlier this year I wrote an essay for a Middle-Eastern History undergraduate course at university in which I examined the Islamic State’s development in the context of historical jihadi movements.  To do so, I cited official IS press releases in order to provide evidence of the group’s ideology.  Is this an act of terrorism?  What if I were to have gone further and explored more jihadi works – say, of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a leading jihadi theorist who has influenced many movements in Iraq during the last decade?  I would be reading these sources purely out of academic interest with no intention of becoming a jihadi myself.  Would that be an act of terrorism?

Let’s go even broader.  I have a downloaded copy of The Communist Manifesto on my phone I’m reading through out of historical and ideological interest.  Is that terrorism?  For another university essay last year, I consulted a copy of Mein Kampf to gain an insight into National Socialist ideology.  Was that terrorism?  Under UK law, certainly not – these documents, even Mein Kampf, are understood to have academic value.  So it’s clear that, in the UK, ‘terrorist documents’ can be narrowed down generally to those which espouse violent Islamism.

Of course, as Sabir mentions in his article, there’s a strong element of ‘racial discrimination’ here.  As a white British citizen with no Muslim or Middle-Eastern ancestry, it is likely that I could get away with accessing jihadi documents for the purpose of academic research as I don’t fit the profile of an Islamist terrorist.  Indeed, in the unlikely event I would be charged, I’d be protected under the Terrorism Act which states that individuals charged can be defended if:

(a) the statement neither expressed his views nor had his endorsement (whether by virtue of section 3 or otherwise); and
(b) that it was clear, in all the circumstances of the statement’s publication, that it did not express his views and (apart from the possibility of his having been given and failed to comply with a notice under subsection (3) of that section) did not have his endorsement.

I imagine this is what protected Sabir, as well as the fact he accessed the documents from the US government.  I would hope this clause has protected most people who have been charged with terrorism for conducting legitimate academic research.  Nevertheless, as the British Library has demonstrated, the legislation is still effective in creating an atmosphere where self-censorship is widely practiced, which cannot be healthy for academia.  If the UK is to maintain its reputation for academic freedom and world-class research, this problem needs to be tackled.

2014: My Life

Just realised I forgot to post my regular chart of the year!  As regular readers will know, I give every day of the year a specific grade, then take each month’s average to chart the ebb and flow of my life across the year.  This is the chart 2014 made:

2014 chart

It’s pretty much as I expected.  My Dad’s death in mid January explains the downward curve at the beginning, with February being the first month in negative figures since 2011, while May as ever proved unenjoyable for students everywhere.  The latter half of the year was fairly steady though noticeably a bit below where previous years have been.

New Podcast: The Entellectuals

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A friend and I have recently begun a weekly podcast called ‘The Entellectuals’ (get it?).  We’re hoping to cover a variety of different topics depending on what we’re currently thinking about, or possibly studying in our courses.  Each episode has a general discussion followed by an argument from either one of us, then it concludes with a more light-hearted element.  If this interests you, check out the first episode in which we discuss alcohol, studentsInterstellar and the nature of artistic value.

We have been having some technical issues, unfortunately.  Despite all the online guides saying podcasts are easy to make, it turns out they’re anything but that.  There have been so many problems getting the podcast onto an Itunes feed, something we still haven’t succeeded at doing.  Soundcloud will apparently have to do for now.