In Switzerland, You Can Be Denied Citizenship for Being Too Annoying

Here is one matter, at least, in which the Swiss refuse to be neutral.

Nancy Holten wants to become a naturalized Swiss citizen. Her criticism of cowbells, however, has thwarted that desire. (Lisi Niesner / Reuters)

Nancy Holten, 42, was born in the Netherlands. At the age of 8, however, she moved with her family to Switzerland, which Holten has called home for the past 34 years. Holten currently resides, with her three daughters, in the small village of Gipf-Oberfrick, in the far north of the country, within the canton of Aargau. She speaks fluent Swiss-German. Her daughters are Swiss citizens. She has been a member of the parents’ committee of their school.

And yet Holten was recently rejected for a Swiss passport—which is also to say, effectively, for naturalized Swiss citizenship. For the second time.

The reason? In Switzerland, applications for naturalization are decided not at the federal level, but rather by the country’s cantons and municipalities—and the applicants’ peers have a say in whether naturalization gets granted. And, unfortunately for Nancy Holten, her peers are not inclined to give her the “gift” of a passport. Because, despite all the ways she is Swiss, Holten—a vegan who is extremely vocal about that life choice—has also stridently opposed one of the most beloved cultural traditions of Gipf-Oberfrick, and of Aargau, and of Switzerland itself: the practice of putting large bells around the necks of cows, for reasons both practical and ceremonial. Insert your preferred “more cowbell” joke here.

In 2015, Holten’s application for naturalization was approved by local authorities but then rejected, in a vote, by 144 of 206 residents of Gipf-Oberfrick. In November of 2016, a similarly sized group gathered at a communal assembly to hear Holten's case. Some of the attendees booed her as the debates took place. For them, it seems, the matter wasn’t so much that Holten was outspoken in her criticism of the bells (though Tanja Suter, the president of the local branch of the Swiss People’s Party, did complain to reporters that Holten has a “big mouth”). The problem was rather that Holten’s activism, they have said, displays a lack of respect for the village’s—and the country’s—cultural traditions. The problem was also, more to the point, that Holten had demonstrated that disrespect so publicly.

“The reason why they have yet again clearly rejected the naturalization is that Nancy Holten very often expresses her personal opinion in the media,” Urs Treier, a spokesman for the Gipf-Oberfrick administration, told The Local. He added that Holten also “gathers media coverage for rebelling against traditional [Swiss] things within the village.”

It’s an explanation that offers a lot to ruminate on. The village’s reaction to Holten’s media-savvy activism is reminiscent on the one hand of those “common scold” laws they used to have in Europe and, for a time, the United States. Sanded of its edges, after all, here is that most age-old of things: a woman speaking her mind, and being roundly condemned for it. And here is a woman speaking, too, for creatures that cannot speak for themselves. “The animals carry around five kilograms around their neck,” Holten explained of her cow-bell-related advocacy. “It causes friction and burns to their skin.” (Plus, she added: “The sound that cow bells make is 100-decibel. ... We also would not want such a thing hanging close to our ears.”)

Holten also rejects the idea that her advocacy of animal rights doubles as an attack on Swiss culture. “Many people think that I am attacking their traditions,” she told The Local. “But that was not what it was about, it was never about that. What primarily motivated me about the cowbells was the animals’ welfare.”

Not helping Nancy Holten to defend herself against her peers’ charges of her general gadflyery, however, is the fact that she followed up her animal-rights-oriented effort with another campaign—this time, against the ringing of church bells early in the morning, another locally beloved element of the culture of Gipf-Oberfrick. Holten’s efforts in this case won her the name, among her fellow villagers, “Glockengegnerin”—roughly, “the bell-fighter.” They did not win her, however, any additional friends in the area. Nor did the other campaigns Holten has waged against local pastimes, among them hunting and pig racing—the latter of which the Swiss National Tourist Office highlights as one of the nation’s “living traditions.”

Whether Holten is a hero or a menace or something in between, Swiss law itself is not necessarily on her side in all this. According to Switzerland’s Federal Act on the Acquisition and Loss of Swiss Citizenship, established in 1952, Swiss citizenship “may be obtained by a permanent resident who lived in Switzerland for at least 12 years … and lived in the country for 3 out of the last 5 years before applying for citizenship.” The resident must speak, depending on the canton, at least one of Switzerland’s primary languages: German (preferably Swiss German), French, Italian, or Romansch. But the resident must also demonstrate:

  • compliance with the Swiss rule of law;
  • no danger to Switzerland's internal or external security
  • integration into the Swiss way of life; and
  • familiarity with Swiss habits, customs and traditions.

It’s those last two that have helped Holten’s fellow villagers to transform casual ostracism into something decidedly more official. As Tanja Suter of the Swiss People’s Party made clear: Holten’s peers would not grant her citizenship “if she annoys us and doesn’t respect our traditions.” That kind of thing, Urs Treier reiterated, “can cause the community to not want such a person in their midst.”

But that community, it turns out, will not have the final word in deciding Holten’s fate. Her case has moved on, as some of Switzerland’s more complicated naturalization applications will do, to the cantonal government, which is empowered to override the rejections administered by the locals of Gipf-Oberfrick. Holten may still be granted naturalization; she may be rejected once again. If things don’t go her way for the third time, however, perhaps she should consider seeking residency instead in a country that rewards brashness, and idiosyncrasy, and above all media savvy—a country that makes a political virtue out of rankling one’s peers. Holten, after all, who is Dutch by birth, Swiss by choice, but, it seems, very much American by temperament, is already at work on a book about herself and her bovine ordeal. It is tentatively titled Celle qui énerve, or, What Annoys.