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.”