This article first appeared in the Scottish Socialist Voice.
Since the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act in 2012, there has been much debate about the legitimacy of the legislation. The Act went through Parliament in a manner many say was ‘rushed’, and the legislation’s content is scarily vague. It is also problematic in that its definition of offensive behaviour is unclear and, because of this, it is ultimately down to the personal opinion of individual police officers to determine whether ‘offensive behaviour’ has been practiced.
The above are just some of the many issues with this much disputed legislation. With these in mind, it is understandable that a potential repeal of the Act spearheaded by James Kelly MSP has been welcomed with open arms by many. However, whilst this bid for repeal has brought some hope, the response from some sectors has disheartened myself and many other female football fans.
Reading the written submissions of evidence for the repeal bid from different individuals and organisations once they were published was a generally positive experience. I know that myself, and many other women, were naturally eager to read the submission from the Scottish Women’s Convention (SWC). Yet, I couldn’t have felt more unrepresented.
The SWC state in their submission that they have a number of events and roadshows where they gather the opinions of women, and it is from these events they gathered the ‘insight’ that was shared in their written submission. However, the contents seem vague and there is no clarity on where or when these events took place, whether the women asked actually attended football matches nor the demographic of women involved. Some other female football fans and myself directly contacted SWC to ask about this, but the responses were unclear and the majority didn’t get responses at all.
The SWC were due in Parliament on 7 November to give oral evidence in regards to their submission. With this in mind, over 40 emails were sent to the organisation over the preceding weekend from female football fans who felt passionately that they should reconsider their approach. 7 November came around and, with hope, we waited to see if our requests had been considered. Unfortunately, they hadn’t.
Debbie Figures, the SWC representative in Holyrood that day, acknowledged that she had received some emails over the weekend – but didn’t disclose what they said. She explicitly said that whatever was in those emails couldn’t be considered because they only consider the opinions of women at her organisation’s events and roadshows.
This is a thoroughly disappointing stance from an organisation who are truly capable of making change. Representatives of the organisation proudly claimed on the day that the SWC hears frequently from women online. However, it seems as if the ‘inclusive’ organisation just weren’t willing to consider the 40 emails they received from female football fans prior to their appearance at Parliament that week.
What was most alarming about the SWC’s both written and oral submission was the mention of women contending with sexual harassment and rape threats at football matches. The SWC said that this in itself was enough reason for the Act to remain, as women weren’t included in hate crime legislation. This is hugely problematic in a number of ways.
Firstly – I agree, the sooner women are included in hate crime legislation the better (and this is being worked on currently). However, it’s not relevant. As is the overriding argument against this Act, legislation is already in place to deal with the incidents detailed. The Sexual Offences Act 2009 deals with all manners of sexual violence and inappropriate communications. To suggest sexual violence exists in a vacuum in and around football grounds is immensely insulting to survivors. The patriarchal divisions and gender inequality which lead to sexual violence are deep-rooted in the very foundations of society and are wide-spread. To trivialise this and suggest such harassment and abuse be dealt with under football-related legislation, especially with the Sexual Offences Act in place, is massively disrespectful.
At the beginning of the oral evidence session in Parliament on 7 November, all panel representatives were asked what their experiences were like at the football. All of them responded that they didn’t attend regularly enough to say. SWC’s Debbie Figures said she had “no strong interest in football”, and this was made clear as the session progressed.
The Offensive Behaviour Act is arguably one of the most problematic in recent years and is essentially classist in its criminalisation of a traditionally working-class sport. SWC, being a feminist organisation that I would assume seeks to support all women of all classes, are failing by championing this law which criminalises working class football fans and impacts their lives and families. The SWC’s dismissal of emails from female football fans shows no willingness to listen to or engage with our thoughts and opinions.
Organisations can submit additional evidence to the Justice Committee on top of previous submissions and I would hope that an organisation which preaches inclusivity would perhaps consider an additional submission including some of the concerns shared with them via email that have been left out of their earlier evidence.
Women are already an under-represented gender in football, both on the pitch and in the stands. But we do exist, and our voices shouldn’t be ignored.