Standing up for women from the terraces

28 Mar

– Hannah Davies, Director, One World Action

On Sunday evening I participated in what was a very happy occasion. A small, marginalised, impoverished and often forgotten football club managed to hold Arsenal to a draw in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Leyton Orient is the team I grew up with. My Dad took me and my brother when we were young children and, in spite of being away from the UK for a while, I usually feel very comfortable stepping back into the environs of Brisbane Road, London E.10. So after Leyton Orient drew level with Arsenal in the final minutes of the cup tie I was more than happy to join the throng of fans – mostly men – in their regular post-match pub.

It was a great evening with lots of spontaneous singing and chanting: communal, celebratory, inclusive and friendly. That is, until a group of supporters started singing one particular song known as “Scuba Diver”. Apparently it’s an Orient classic and most of the pub did seem to know the words. In a nutshell, the song describes all of the various ways in which the (male) singer will have intercourse with his – un-named, of course – girlfriend, including when she’s dead.

It’s a horrible song. Hearing all of these men sing along got me thinking… although women in the North may support women’s rights professionally, we can perhaps be a bit complacent when confronted by sexism in more familiar environments. Campaigns like Action Aid’s “Get Lippy”, while welcome, or the horror stories about sexual violence in conflict zones such as Eastern Congo, can sometimes give the impression that gender based violence happens in other places and has nothing to do with our privileged lives. It becomes a development problem for us to solve. But when I hear a song that talks about digging up a female corpse and having sex with it, supposedly in the context of a happy carefree night out with the boys then I can see the link. One of the slogans doing the rounds for International Women’s Day is because if we aren’t equal everywhere, we aren’t equal anywhere. I would agree that if we want to talk about solidarity with women around the world then it might be better to say we actually aren’t equal anywhere – we might be better off in many ways, economically, legally, culturally, but not equal. Not when reasonable, ordinary men in a pub in London in 2011 think it is OK to sing songs like “Scuba Diver”.

“Scuba Diver” is not funny, it’s not harmless and it’s not OK. It sends a nasty and threatening message to those women who are football fans or who are just in the pub having a drink. As a woman, you are the lone individual in a collective mass of men. It tells you that this is not your public space. The men are the ones chanting together while you sit quiet and listen. Never mind the lyrics – the very public performance of the song has the affect of belittling any woman who is a witness.

And as my sister very rightly pointed out if you replaced the woman in the song with a member of an ethnic minority, in that context and with those men, it would have been completely unacceptable. The campaign to kick racism out of football – led by fans putting pressure on other fans – has been remarkably successful. But sexism in football, from “Scuba Diver” to the tabloid antics of high-profile football stars, has really yet to be challenged.

However, on Sunday, a couple of men did begin to speak out. In fact one man – a long-time supporter who has written popular songs about Orient – did challenge the song. Steve White (lead singer in the band Steve White and the Protest Family ( supported my sister and another female friend when they complained about the song. He has now written his own song – which he will no doubt perform in front of many of these same men – which points out how offensive it is and declaring that he will “never sing Scuba Diver”. And other men too, also began to express their own discomfort about why men sing this song.

More Women More Power is a strong message for women. But we also need the support of men. Not just passively saying that it’s a good idea for women to have rights. We need to encourage men who don’t like songs that sexually humiliate and objectify women to actively challenge their friends, their colleagues or fellow supporters in the pub, on the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that threaten and undermine women and prevent them from participating as full members of society – whether that is as political representatives or as football fans.


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