THE long awaited inclusion of women in Shetland’s Up Helly Aa will “transform” the culture of the festival, a feminist campaigner has said.

Numerous island women have campaigned for equality in the Viking fire festival for over 100 years – but it was only last week that organisers finally bowed to public pressure.

Whether or not 2023 will see its first female guizers taking part remains to be seen, as the event is already at capacity and you have to be invited to join any of the squads that take part in the procession, each of which are autonomous and have no statutory oversight.

Since 1882 on the last Tuesday of January, the island has watched a thousand men dressed in full Viking regalia parade through the streets of Lerwick carrying lit torches making their way to the burning site where a longboat is dramatically set alight.

READ MORE: Shetland's Up Helly Aa Viking festival squads finally open to women

Women have gradually been allowed into the smaller local events held across the island which celebrate residents’ Scandinavian Viking heritage, but it has taken years of campaigning and intense media pressure for the main Lerwick event to allow them to participate.

Zara Pennington is one of the members of Up Helly Aa for Aa, a campaign group of women who have been dedicated to pushing the cause and allowing women to take part.

She told the Sunday National how the festival is notorious for being boozy, the questionable outfit choices of some of the guizers and attendees and the “sexist” performances the squads do in front of thousands. In 2020, news reports emerged of claims of sexual assault and groping from female festivalgoers. Pennington hopes that this move will signal a change in the culture around the festival, moving it away from its tradition-based male orientated outlook for the first time. The 38-year-old pointed out that women have been campaigning to take part since the 1900s.

The National: Zara Pennington says it remains to be seen if the sexist culture will changeZara Pennington says it remains to be seen if the sexist culture will change

She told the Sunday National: “I just thought it was fantastic news for the community really, it will transform the festival and we’ll be able to move forward without this acrimonious issue.

“While they [Up Helly Aa committee] are clearly bowing to pressure, they are on the right track. When the sky doesn’t fall and the world doesn’t end because they’ve let in the women, I think things will start to change, because change is scary and giving up privilege is scary as it seems like inequality because you’ve had more than anyone else.

“That’s often hard to deal with, particularly things that have been male only for a long time because it’s rooted in historical male privilege.”

Of particular note is that young women will be allowed to join the junior parade, which takes place on the same day, an event which recently has had issues with low numbers.

But for the adult evening parade it may be a bit more complicated, and depends on the squad leaders to decide who can take part. Participants must be aged 16 or over and have lived in Shetland continuously for five years to be able to take part, but for once, gender is not a criterion.

Pennington thinks the most likely squad to allow a woman to take part could be the Guizer Jarl’s squad, who dress in full Viking costume and lead the procession, while other squads tend to choose a dress up theme.

She said: “I also think some of the smaller squads are more likely to do it because they want to be the first.

“I wonder if they’ll allow women in on the agreement that they don’t dress as women, because Up Helly Aa is famous for men dressing as women,” she joked.

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Whether including women will actually change the culture of sexism within the festival remains to be seen, as Pennington says: “I think for certain groups of men and certain squads, there was a great fear that this [drinking culture] would stop. They would have to be more serious about the festival, and they wouldn’t be able to tell their sexist jokes.”

It also comes as Shetland Council elected their first female council leader, Emma MacDonald, and convener, Andrea Manson, both Independents.

Pennington adds: “It’s an interesting fact that the convener gives a welcome speech at the civic reception, and the leader for the first time is going to be a woman giving over the keys of Lerwick in effect to an event that didn’t want her to take part.”

The Up Helly Aa secretary Robert Geddes told a local newspaper that although the event was at capacity with 47 squads – ruling out an all female group – “by giving squads the freedom to choose, we are actively allowing change to happen”.