Swiss culture has hit the news in a couple of ways this week, so I thought I’d share my experiences. Keep in mind, I can’t possibly explain all Swiss culture because I don’t get all of it, but maybe a few of the things I say will make some sense.
First, there’s the lady described in this article: Left-wing Dutch vegan who moved to Switzerland is denied a Swiss passport because she is too annoying
Now, all of you might be saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea! Let’s deny citizenship to anyone who is annoying!” while fully understanding that “annoying” is a little hard to put into statutory law: Who decides who is annoying and how annoying does it need to be before you get denied due to getting on everyone’s nerves?
The process for obtaining Swiss citizenship isn’t consistent across the country. It varies from canton to canton (a canton is like a state, except because Switzerland is so small, they are quite tiny compared to US standards). The Swiss really believe in Federalism, and so each Canton gets to vary the rules to fit their local culture and needs.
Some things are standard–like the number of years you need to live here to apply. (For US citizens with no Swiss relatives, like us, we have to be here 12 years to apply.) The language requirement is also fixed: You have to have a B1 level in an official language (German, French, Italian, or Romansch.)
But, the wild card is the vote. Some cantons require your town to give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down. To be honest, I don’t know if my town gets to vote on us when that time comes.
As you might expect, in a larger town, this can be used to weed people out by their “undesireable” last names. (I’ve been told we’ll have no problem, because people will think we’re Germans with the last name of Lucas.) However, this woman appears to have lost her town’s support–twice–because she’s annoying.
This does not mean she sings loudly while walking the aisles of the grocery store, or that she paints her house purple (which would also be bad, by the way), but because she is actively trying to destroy Swiss Culture.
I used a capital C for Culture because it is a Very Important Thing in Switzerland. She specifically wants to get rid of cow bells. This is not funny for Swiss people. It eats at the heart of Swiss culture and people don’t want it.
Switzerland is a small country and the cantons are tiny, and the people want to maintain their way of life. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all. Why shouldn’t a country be able to maintain their identity? Cow bells are part of their identity. They just are, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be a Swiss citizen. Notably, they aren’t kicking her out of the country–they are just saying you can’t be Swiss because you reject Swiss traditions.
The other story sounds like a case of religious discrimination, but it’s really another culture thing. Here’s the NYT article: Muslim Girls in Switzerland Must Attend Swim Classes With Boys, Court Says.
From an American viewpoint, this freaks me out. The girls say it’s against their religion, so dang it, it’s against their religion, and they shouldn’t be required to take the swim classes with boys. The Swiss (and the European Court of Human Rights) see it as a culture issue.
Treating boys and girls the same is part of Swiss Culture–you can be denied a residency permit if you don’t subscribe to that philosophy. This all went down in Basel–I live in suburban Basel–in 2008, but the court just issued the final ruling.
Now, one note of interest: the parents are Swiss and Turkish Citizens, so they weren’t denied citizenship like the cow bell lady, but the community pushed back when they attempted to circumvent a school tradition. (Incidentally, my son’s school does not have swimming lessons, which makes me sad because dragging kids to swimming lessons is one of the worst parts of parenting.)
The court ruled that “The public interest in following the full school curriculum should prevail over the applicants’ private interest in obtaining an exemption from mixed swimming lessons for their daughters.”
But wait, isn’t this a religious thing? To the Swiss, no it’s not. Why? Because the parents admit that Muslim rules would only require that separation after puberty, but they wanted to get their girls used to the separation before that. Since the girls (7 and 9 when this started), had not yet gone through puberty, the Swiss saw it as a Culture issue. Essentially, the policy is you can practice your religion, no problem, but you better make sure it’s actually your religion and not your culture. Since their religion doesn’t officially require separation at this age, they aren’t allowed.
When I wrap my brain around that, it makes more sense than my immediate reaction of “what in the heck?” And it reminded me of growing up in Mormon-heavy Utah and having Mormons saying they want a religious exemption for vaccination when the LDS church has a worldwide immunization program through its charitable arm. It kind of made me want to slap those people. (Also, for the love of Pete, vaccinate yourself and your kids!)
But, I also have a lot of empathy for the parents of these girls. They want to choose the way to raise their children and it’s frustrating to have the government push back and say “you’re doing it wrong.” They could, of course, move back to Turkey, and Turkey is a lovely place that is politically unstable at the moment. I’d pick Switzerland too.
There’s another Swiss rule that’s mentioned in the article–shaking teacher’s hands. The case involving that also involved a Basel suburb. (Basel and her suburbs have an incredibly high immigrant/expat population, which is why these things pop up here.) Hand shaking is so, so, so, important to the Swiss. I still don’t live up the expectation, which is to shake everyone’s hand when you enter a room and shake it again when you leave. I’m known to sneak in and out. Also, they like hugging and kissing on the cheek (3 times!).
When I was working with the children at church (I’m now doing the adult music), every Sunday all the kids would line up to shake my hand. They wouldn’t leave until they had done so. I was a teacher, so they must shake my hand. If I was trying to do something else, they’d wait until I was done, so they could shake my hand. Culture.
Hopefully, this was interesting and helps you understand where they are coming from. Also, more cow bell!