WHEN it comes to sectarianism, the images most likely to spring to mind are of football violence and ugly scenes around Orange marches and parades.


Usually the debate on sectarianism is dominated by male football fans, but now a three-year project, which will be unveiled this week, is to reset the gender balance and give women a say for the first time on religious bigotry and its impact on their lives.

The findings uncovered by the research, which focused on Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, ranged from women raising fears that sectarianism was being used an excuse for domestic violence, to not buying toothbrushes and clothes in particular colours - green and orange - to avoid upsetting family members.

The report, which has been compiled by feminist organisation Engender Scotland, will be launched at an event in Glasgow on Tuesday. It will also screen a film showing young women talking about their experiences of sectarianism.

It notes the current popular definition of sectarianism is one of "men behaving badly, which rests on public disorder around football matches, marches and parades" and that women are often found "lurking at the margins" as, for example, victims of football-related violence.

The women taking part in the study spoke of having to deal with tensions over cross-community relationships - likened to "interracial marriages" by some.

Children choosing what colour crayons they use based on football and bans on football colours in nurseries were also highlighted in the findings.

The study participants were also highly critical of the link which has been made between the Old Firm games and domestic abuse - which has been made due to evidence of a sharp rise in incidents when the fixtures were played. However the women raised concerns the relationship between sectarianism and domestic abuse was being used as an "excuse", with men blaming their actions on disappointment over football games.

Women from Glasgow also described the efforts they would make to avoid being in town on Old Firm days and getting caught up in crowds of drunk fans, and of experiences where they have been shouted and sworn at, grabbed and pulled onto laps of men sitting on trains and touched inappropriately.

Relentless workplace conversations about the Old Firm and sectarian symbols were also described. One participant said: "My boss looked at a publication I'd designed and told me it could be any colour but 'fucking orange'."

Emma Ritch, executive director of Engender Scotland, said the women raised many issues which had not been part of the usual discussions around sectarianism.

She said: "Our main point is that it is hard to solve a social problem when you are missing out half of the population in thinking about what the effects are and what the solutions might be.

"I was quite struck by the findings around violence against women - for example women being very critical of the idea that domestic abuse is connected to sectarianism in the way it is presented.

"There was also a significant experience of street harassment and women finding it really challenging to go outside in their community on specific days of the year when some things which could be seen as sectarian were happening."

Other examples cited in the research include women having to choose purchases for the family based on colour - ranging from school lunchboxes to clothes and cars. One participant said: "None of them will even use a blue toothbrush". Another said: "Everyone round my way had something to say about the fact my car is green."

The notion of 'mixed' religious marriages or relationship was also viewed as still strong in some communities. One youth worker in West Lothian described being told by one family to keep their son apart from his Rangers girlfriend.

Ritch said: "Women are often responsible for most of the household purchasing, so they are at the sharp end of managing all that and smoothing all those tensions.

"When you add in the difficulty of tensions with extended family, it places an added strain and burden."

Concerns were also raised that local-authority decision making on issues, for example, could be influenced by sectarian-thinking. "You think everything will be fair and open, and then you find out the people who are making the decision are in the same secret organisation as some of the other people involved," one participant said.

The report contains a series or recommendations for tackling the issue, drawn from both the report's analysis and the suggestions of the women who participated. They include ending segregation in schools, training clergy to discuss issues of sectarianism, and having public officials declare their membership of organisations such as the Knights of St Columba, the Orange Order and the Masons.

However Ritch said they believed the evidence for some of the recommendations - such as ending separate Catholic schools - was not necessarily strong.

"That is something which people think will solve the problem," she said. "I am not so sure that we as an organisation are convinced that is the case - the evidence base is not that great, but certainly that is something that women thought."

Another recent project by Glasgow Women's Library has also been addressing the issue of how women from different communities are affected by sectarianism, using workshops, film and creative writing projects.

Rachel Thain-Gray, development worker for 'Mixing The Colours' Project at Glasgow Women's Library, said: "Because Scotland is multi-cultural, we wanted to speak to a real diverse range of women and make sure all of their voices were taken into account.

"There was one woman who said she would never wear a green Sari on a match day around Ibrox for fear of being targeted or thought of as having some kind of Catholic or Celtic allegiances - that was on top of being a Muslim woman, which she already felt she was targeted for on match days and parade days.

"There were lots of women saying they choose not to travel into the city centre or use public transport on those days, in case they attract any trouble or get caught up in anything."

She added: "One of the young women from Ibrox who was part of the project told us it was the first time in 27 years she had been able to speak about sectarianism in her area - she said no-one had ever asked her about this before."

"Others issues raised included the physical restrictions put on young women - where they could go and where they wouldn't be welcomed because of their religious background.

"There was also a lot of stories from childhood, for example about being easily identifiable through school uniforms and being targeted for your school uniform, whatever side of religion you were on."

Dave Scott, director of Nil By Mouth, the anti-sectarian charity which was founded by Cara Henderson in 1999 when she was a teenager, said women have been playing a prominent role in addressing the issue.

"There can be no doubting the hugely positive impact women have had on tackling sectarianism in Scotland," he said. "We have had a gender balanced board and staff compliment for several years.

"Prominent politicians such as Cathy Jamieson and Roseanne Cunningham provided high profile leadership of government initiatives and we've witnessed brilliant female teachers and pupils in areas such as Blantyre, East Kilbride, Cambuslang and Lanark driving forward change in their schools."