The Hidden Shame of Sectarianism in Scotland and How It Affects Women

The Tartan Army,
Sectarianism in Scotland has been linked to gender-equality issues in the country. Here, Scottish football supporters. CREATIVE COMMONS

On the international stage, Scotland’s feminist credentials appear groundbreaking. All main political parties in Scotland are led by women, including the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, from the Scottish National Party. Women’s rights have been named a priority, and gender equality has been high on the political agenda, with Sturgeon and her party pledging their commitment to policies promoting these issues back in April 2015.

Despite Scotland’s advances for women on the political stage, issues like equal pay and violence against women remain persistent barriers to attaining parity in Scotland, as they do throughout the rest of the world.

Engender is Scotland’s leading feminist organization, based in Edinburgh, the capital, since the early 1990s as an advocacy and research organization. Its aim is to advance equality between women and men by generating studies, lobbying decision-makers and supporting grassroots groups.

Emma Ritch, the executive director since 2013, was interviewed by PassBlue about Engender’s work and the status of some lesser-known gender equality problems in Scotland. Ritch previously worked in what she terms “the women’s sector” for 12 years before joining Engender. She was involved in women’s rights activism even before that time.

“I started life as a baby feminist as a volunteer support worker at Glasgow Rape Crisis Centre, and have been proud to be involved with the Centre’s work ever since,” she said in the interview, which was done by email.

Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city after Edinburgh, with a population of more than a million, 52 percent of which are women. One in five people in Glasgow will experience sexual violence at some time in their lives. The Rape Crisis Center has been providing free support to women and girls who have been raped, sexually assaulted or sexually abused since 1976.

“The last two and a bit years have been an extremely exciting time to be working as a feminist in Scotland,” Ritch said.

Much of this excitement is related to the role women have started to play politically in the country during the last couple of years. Besides Sturgeon’s highly visible role leading the Scottish Parliament, leaders of the Labour and the Conservative parties in Scotland are also women.

On taking office, Sturgeon ensured that her Cabinet had an equal gender balance, saying that it was, “A clear demonstration that this government will work hard in all areas to promote women, to create gender equality and it sends out a strong message that the business of redressing the gender balance in public life starts right here in government.”

Despite this outward appearance of progress, Ritch points out, “Only 35 percent of MSPs [members of the Scottish Parliament] are women, and less than a quarter of councillors [elected members of local government councils]. The number of women in the Parliament has recently reduced, and the resistance to gender quotas as a solution suggests that there is still deep anxiety about women’s place in public life.”

Scotland also grapples with gender equality issues peculiar to its society and culture. Sectarianism is one of the biggest problems Scotland faces in this regard, and it has been described as Scotland’s “secret shame” — even Ritch’s group refrained from answering too many questions on the topic.

While there is debate around how extensive the problem is, almost 90 percent of Scots polled in a Scottish Social Attitudes survey in 2014 believed sectarianism was a problem for the country.

Defined as a form of discrimination or bigotry, sectarianism can be extremely varied but is usually based on religious or class distinctions. Scotland has a long history of sectarian violence rooted in the religious animosity that grew between the Irish Roman Catholic population and Protestants, primarily in the west of Scotland, an area of high immigration rates.

Sectarianism was manifested and reinforced by the rivalry between the two main football (soccer) teams in Scotland, Celtics and Rangers, as these became focal points for religious and social communities. Recent data released by the Scottish government on sectarian violence at Scottish football matches showed an increase of 49 percent in the number of hate crimes in the past year alone. Because of the association between football and sectarianism, the effect of the issue on women has gone largely unspoken, brushed under the rug, a situation that Engender is trying to change through its research.

Sectarianism in Scotland is often associated with “men behaving badly,” as Engender says on its website, referring to the country’s national sport and the passions of football fans. Until now, women have been mostly absent from discussions about sectarianism. However, Engender’s project, “The ‘S’ Word,” was designed to explore women’s understanding and experience of intra-Christian sectarianism and sectarian violence. This research has begun to link the role of sectarian violence and domestic abuse, “bringing together hundreds of women across Scotland to talk about their experience of sectarianism and create ways of challenging it,” Ritch said.

She continued, “One of the most interesting parts of our anti-sectarianism project was coming together with other organisations to try and define and understand what sectarianism in Scotland is, and to try and untangle a complicated knot of faith, national, and community identities,” Ritch said.

One organization that Engender worked with on the project was Urbancroft Films, who made a film exploring women’s experiences of sectarianism in Glasgow and the west of Scotland.

“Our main finding was that both women and gender are almost completely missing from the shared understanding of sectarianism, and from attempts to tackle it,” Ritch said. This means “whole areas of women’s negative experiences, like managing conflict within families, being marginalised within faith communities, and dealing with street harassment, are less visible.”

Despite Engender’s research, “There aren’t any simple answers about the shape and size of the problem,” she added.

As a result of these findings, Engender has made a list of recommendations for action, including thinking about whether antisectarianism work is best delivered by male-dominated organizations like churches and football clubs; creating interventions that take account of the links between sectarianism and “toxic masculinity”; and supporting women to challenge sectarian attitudes as they parent their children.

The recommendations include an assertion, however, that “anti-sectarian projects should explicitly focus on gender, both in terms of directly challenging ‘toxic masculinity,’ and in building women’s capacity and resilience to resist and challenge it,” Ritch said.

She was not enthusiastic, for example, about a new program introduced by Police Scotland [the territorial police service of Scotland] meant to tackle sectarian violence against women. The program allows police officers to remove serial domestic abuse offenders from their homes before a major football game. The basis for the program is a consistent spike in violence against women after a big football match, as sectarian violence tends to be fueled by the animosity between the opposing football teams.

Yet as Ritch said: “Domestic abuse is caused by women’s inequality. It isn’t caused by football, by drink, or by sectarianism.”

Violence against women is just one form of gender inequality that women deal with on a daily basis, and Engender identifies other areas, such as discrepancies in pay, power and representation.

“Women’s inequality has so many overlapping impacts on women’s lives; the way we structure the economy, the workplace, the law, the Scottish Parliament and councils, and the media, all of these need to change if women’s equality and rights are to be realized,” Ritch said.

When asked broadly how she and Engender hope to achieve such a reality, Ritch pointed to the group’s long-term plans and policies for tackling gender inequality in Scotland that could, as Ritch termed it, “persuade those in power to do things differently.”

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Rhona Scullion

Rhona Scullion

Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women's issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor's degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.

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