Shetland’s largest Up Helly Aa Viking fire festival has lifted a longstanding ban on women and girls taking part after repeatedly resisting demands for reform.
Organisers of the event, held in Lerwick every January, had refused to let women join in the annual parade through the town by 1,000 torch-bearing guizers or the late-night ritualistic burning of a replica longship on a council-owned playing field.
Women were restricted to serving as organisers and hostesses at all-night parties around the town, and girls were barred from taking part in the junior Up Helly Aa event on the same day.
The all-male organising committee had ignored pressure from equalities groups such as Up Hally Aa for Aa and Reclaim the Raven, who pointed at decisions by every other Up Helly Aa festival on the islands to allow women to participate.
South Mainland Up Helly Aa elected its first female guizer jarl, or chief Viking, in 2015. Three years later, campaigners in Lerwick tried to register a mixed squad called #metoo for the next festival but were barred from submitting their application. Equalities activists often faced vicious abuse from defenders of the all-male policy.
With some observers expecting angry demonstrations from equalities activists if the ban continued, the mood hardened further when Shetland Islands council elected women to its top two leadership positions for the first time after May’s local government elections.
The convener traditionally gives a welcome speech at an Up Helly Aa civic reception each year, and Andrea Manson, the new convener, indicated that she would address the equality debate in hers next January.
In a statement on Wednesday, Reclaim the Raven said: “Everyone involved with Reclaim the Raven are delighted with this news. We are especially happy for the lasses that wanted to participate in Junior Up Helly Aa and looking forward to seeing women and girls taking part across right across the festivals. We hope that Up Helly Aa 2023 will be one of the best ever.”
A spokesperson for Up Helly Aa for Aa said it was “wonderful news. [We] are absolutely delighted that the UHA committee has listened to the folk who want the festival to be inclusive.”
The reforms will be gradual, however. Robert Geddes, the organising committee’s secretary, said the festival was already at capacity, with all 47 squads registered. That means women will need to find places in the squads to join the 2023 festival.
“We run a large and popular fire festival and have unfortunately had to turn down applications from folk wanting to start new squads or looking to increase maximum numbers within squads over the past few years,” he said. “That said, there is always a turnover of guizers within squads from year to year, and by giving squads the freedom to choose, we are actively allowing change to happen.”
Next January’s event will be the first for three years: the Covid pandemic led to the events in 2021 and 2022 being cancelled.
Bryan Peterson, the council’s deputy convener, said: “It’s an important development for the festival and a positive and inclusive message for the community. [The] civic reception in the town hall being hosted by Andrea Manson, our first female convener, will add to the symbolism of gender restrictions being removed from squads.”