Should Vegans Get Passports? My Interview with Nancy Holten
Nancy Holten experienced international fame, when, for the second time in as many years, her application for a Swiss passport was denied.
People are refused citizenship every day. But Ms. Holten’s case is a bit different: she was turned down for speaking publicly about animal-related causes.
Ms. Holten was born in Holland, but she’s lived in Switzerland since she was 8 years old. Holten lives in the small town of Gipf-Oberfrick Switzerland, where she has been vocal in attempts to end animal-related traditional practices. These include the use of cowbells and piglet races.
How does veganism relate to a citizenship application?
Oddly enough, in Switzerland, townspeople can vote on whether or not to approve individual passport applications. Last year, Ms. Holten applied for citizenship and met all legal requirements.
But she was subsequently denied when 144 out 206 town residents turned down her application, complaining that Ms. Holten was “annoying.”
How does a group of angry villagers have the right to turn down qualified applicants for citizenship? Well, Switzerland practices a unique form of direct democracy in which the majority of townspeople often have the final say on anything affecting their community – including applications for citizenship.
This practice has led to some extremely conservative legal decisions. For example, women in Zürich only received the right to vote on a Cantonal level in 1970!
In 2009, Switzerland’s direct democracy also led to the nation’s decision to ban the construction of Minarets – (the muslim equivalent of church steeples). Apparently, the Swiss value some traditions a little more than others.
The president of the local Swiss People’s Party, Tanja Suter, contends that Ms. Holten “big mouth” and will not receive citizenship “if she annoys us and doesn’t respect our traditions”. The Swiss People’s Party is well-known for their opposition to immigration.
What Exactly Did Nancy Holten Do to Upset Townspeople?
By now you’re probably wondering: what exactly did Nancy Holten do? Chain herself to a fence? Stage a violent protest?
Not even close.
In spite of the “annoying vegan” remarks from villagers, Holten is a soft-spoken single mom who did a few media interviews about cowbells in 2015.
Holten agreed to a TV interview that year, where she her belief that cowbells are out-dated (there are better ways of tracking cows, such as GPS), and noisy – both for humans and cows. You can watch the interview on YouTube if you speak German.
Local government official, Urs Treier, explains why townsfolk chose to deny Holten citizenship:
The reason why they [the citizens of Gipf Oberfrick] have yet again clearly rejected the naturalisation is that Nancy Holten very often expresses her personal opinion in the media, and also gathers media coverage for rebelling against traditional [Swiss] things within the village.
It can cause the community to not want such a person in their midst.
Cowbells Have Been Already Been Banned in Zurich
If you think Holten is a single crusader against cowbells, you’d be wrong. The bells used in Switzerland are 5 kilos each, and produce 100 decibels when cows are moving – as much noise as a motorcycle or handheld drill.
Cowbells have actually been a controversy throughout Switzerland, and not only among animal rights activists. A court in Zurich banned cowbells in 2015, because the sound was keeping people up at night. The judge who wrote the decision noted in his ruling that even at a distance of 87 meters, the bells are still loud.
So, while cowbells might be fun for tourists to see and hear, it’s quite a different thing if you have to wear one 24 hours a day, or live next door to a farm!
I contacted Nancy through twitter and she agreed to an email interview, as she is more comfortable writing in English. In reading her response, I was impressed by her kind and soft-spoken manner. I hope hearing her explain the situation in her own words will clarify her position and dispel myths surrounding this case.
ModVegan (MV): Can you give a little background on your “vegan story”?(In other words, how long have you been vegan? What motivates you?)
Nancy Holten (NH): I’ve been living as a vegetarian for 10 years now – for about 9 years I’m almost exclusively vegan. I say ‘almost’, because on the road, I occasionally eat some pralines in the café, for there is not always a vegan alternative.
Since my divorce of the father of my children, I have changed very much. At first mentally; then my body signalled to me, that it did not want meat any more.
I always loved animals with a special fondnessand was no longer able to justify eating meat.
MV: Were you surprised your town reacted so negatively?
NH: Yes and no. I was prepared to a negative reaction, because I got a lot of nasty comments as well as mails and calls. But the fact, that the number of people voting against me was so high, surprised me none the less.
MV: How do you feel about Switzerland’ s decision to allow townspeople to have a vote in Citizenship applications? Do you believe it leads to discrimination?
NH: In my opinion, naturalisations are an administrative act. There are defined conditions and if they are met, you should get the Swiss passport. If such a decision is made on the ground of sympathy or antipathy, democracy ends.
MV: If you could tell the world one thing about your case, what would it be?
NH: My driving force is LOVE. I try to live my life accordingly.
MV: If there’s one piece of advice you could give to other animal rights activists, what would it be?
NH: Be who you are, be strong, be authentic.
But also be polite and respect other opinions.
Even if it moves you to tears how animals are treated, you have to accept, that people need their time to shape their nature again to empathy.
MV:Do you think your case is evidence veganism needs special protection as a belief as a creed under human rights legislation?
NH: When we are only dealing with veganism and its discrimination, then yes.
First, I think it’s clear that Switzerland’s approach to granting passports needs changing, as stated so articulately by Ms. Holten in our interview. The decision to grant citizenship should be based on factual merit, not the biased views of an angry mob on a witch-hunt.
Secondly, while I’ve dismissed calling veganism a religion in the past, I’m beginning to come around. Clearly, veganism goes so against prevailing tradition in parts of the world that it can lead to serious discrimination. As Nancy Holten’s case demonstrates, challenging those traditions can lead to being deprived of something as fundamental as citizenship.
As a new citizen of Canada, I am very grateful to live in a country that doesn’t permit making citizenship decisions on the basis of race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, or mob rule. If you respect the laws of the nation and are otherwise eligible, you’ll receive citizenship. I can’t really imagine being legally discriminated against on such a basic level over something as simple as disagreeing about cowbells. This story really helped me realize how lucky I am.
And if, like me, you’re fortunate enough to live in a country where you can legally exercising free speech, use it!