From a disenfranchised, bystanding expat

From a disenfranchised, bystanding expat

27th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Jackie from the blog SwissWatching shares her frustration with right-wing Swiss billboards.

In Switzerland, there are way fewer billboards than in the US. More selective advertising means that one notices the ads more. They are rarely for companies (and if they are for companies, it is usually one of the two duopolists, Migros or Coop, or for butter or cheese), and more typically for events (like concerts or festivals), as public service announcements, or for political causes. There are frequently popular referenda here, and thus there are often ads to accompany them. Ads here are a weird affair in themselves. They tend to be:
  • filled with beautiful, white people
  • well-designed
  • occasionally filled with some kind of minority in an incredibly offensive sort of way
  • often about very Swiss topics like keeping the train as clean as you would keep your bedroom
  • relatively low on the sexual content.

Seth and I are often upset about them. Last year, there was an ad for butter which showed the “natural” image of someone who ate butter (beautiful, white) and the “unnatural” image of someone who ate butter substitutes (transvestite). The butter campaign has switched to Photoshopping alpine villages to make them look like they are growing out of butter, mountains included (looks like mountain mold). Now, a poster-hanging company is advertising itself with an offensively, stereotypically fez-wearing Turk named Ali Kebap. Do they think these are gaining them customers, and, um, are they?

Then, of course, there are the political ads, which generally have images that have little to do with the actual issue at hand. But currently, there are signs up about the issue of allowing minarets to be constructed. There will be a federal referendum on 29 November as to whether future minaret construction will be allowed. I haven’t seen any signs in favour of this cause; the best I’ve noticed has been “Yes, right of worship, No, minarets.” I’ve also just seen “No to minarets!” Both of these ads feature very sharp and scary-looking caricatured minarets with a hijab-wearing woman cowering ominously in the corner. I can’t even imagine how Muslims walking by those signs must feel. What a welcoming place this country is. People here can be pretty darn xenophobic — it goes beyond those ads. I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations.

In our town of Renens, which is very immigrant-heavy with a large proportion of Muslims, there are graffiti taggers who specialise in tagging ads, often with what I consider rather astute political commentary — mustaches on white, beautiful women, blackened teeth on Ali Kebap, a well-placed snide word, etc. In the case of the “Yes, right of worship, No, minarets,” which is posted prominently in the train station, they cleverly crossed out the “No” and replaced it with “Yes.” Also, in the far-left party newsletter we received in the mail (our town is not only immigrant-heavy, but into communism), there was some relief from the cover-page article denouncing xenophobia and proclaiming that banning minarets will alienate immigrants. They compare this intolerant referendum to the old ban on bell towers for Catholic churches in the Canton of Vaud.

Lately I have noticed more mainstream sources also denouncing racism. Renens' official newsletter featured a cover story on the issue, encouraging its citizens to vote against the ban on minarets and republishing a beautiful ad for religious equality produced by the Societe pour les Minorities en Suisse, which is running an active campaign against the initiative. In French, it says, "Le ciel suisse est suffisamment vaste pour abriter toutes les croyances," which I would translate to, "The Swiss sky is sufficiently vast to shelter all beliefs." (I wonder which synagogue's roof is featured in that ad; it looks suspiciously like the Neue Synagogue in Berlin, which is most definitely not in Switzerland.) In addition, several of my friends from my school and choir have joined a Facebook group of over 4,000 members which parodies the malicious poster and encourages its members to vote no to the initiative as well. This is all encouraging, and I am happy that serious organising against the initiative is happening before the vote, before it is too late.

Butter Swiss ad

What is interesting and frustrating for me is that all I can do here is look at the ads and then go to Democrats Abroad events or send an overseas ballot home to vote on something currently very dissociated from me. It is strange, because I continue to follow American news sources very closely, and Swiss news sources less, but Switzerland is where I now live. What has become really noticeable to me, living abroad and studying international relations, is that people often see other countries only in terms of their foreign policies. Transnational efforts on social issues occur, but not all too often, especially not in a grassroots kind of way. Friends here simply cannot comprehend why Obama might be mired in women’s right to choose, gay marriage, health reform, the recession, and climate change debates, and how political compromises on these issues at home might influence him when it comes to, say, Afghanistan and Iraq. Friends back in the US campaigning for gay marriage never seem to have asked themselves what the status of gay rights is abroad and how they got where they are and whether gay rights are a politically charged issue or not. Personally, I still can’t figure out where the genderqueer people are in my Swiss life (I’ve only met two gay couples since I arrived, and they’re 3/4 American) yet I know that the laws are more favourable to LGBTQ people here than in the US.

I feel overwhelmed by how acceptable discrimination is all around me, coming from The New York Times, via billboards in Switzerland, and every day in class. How is it still possible that such blatant prejudice and intolerance is still within the political mainstream? Should I tolerate such intolerance? It’s upsetting and paralysing, because it is so close and yet so far. People I know, in both countries, are affected directly by all of these debates. Yet, all I can do is be a bystander. So I’m standing by, but not uncritically. What are you doing?

Text by Jackie of SwissWatching / Expatica 2009


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