Portuguese women hit back at Swiss stereotyping

A photography exhibition will open in Fribourg on Thursday aimed at debunking common stereotypes about Portuguese people.

Portuguese women hit back at Swiss stereotyping
File photo: Andrea Pravettoni

The exhibition, entitled ‘Beyond clichés: portraits of Portuguese women in Nyon’, comprises 165 photos of Portuguese women from a diverse array of professions, including an architect, a police officer, and a psychologist.

It was co-created by Mariana Mendes, a Portuguese international relations graduate living in Nyon, in an attempt to counter the stereotyped perception of Portuguese women that she herself has encountered in Switzerland.

“Hearing my nationality, a man who didn’t know me asked if I’d be his cleaner. That pushed me to create this exhibition,” Mendes said in a press release announcing the Fribourg exhibition.

There are around 263,000 Portuguese in Switzerland, according to 2015 figures from the Swiss statistics office, the third largest foreign population after Italians (306,000) and Germans (298,000).

In Fribourg, the Portuguese community comprises 10.9 percent of the population, the biggest foreign population in the city.

But unflattering clichés about the Portuguese are hindering their progress in Switzerland, according to Antonio Da Cunha, president of the Federation of Portuguese Associations in Switzerland (FAPS), which is supporting the exhibition.

“They are good immigrants,” he told Le Matin. “They behave well, work hard, are discreet. But in terms of economic and social integration, we’re not yet there.”

Speaking to the paper, Mendes said it was particularly difficult for second generation Portuguese immigrants who were born in Switzerland but are prejudiced against by stereotypical views.

“We have gathered quite a lot of statements from women… who have, for example, been discouraged by teachers from pursuing medical or law studies because their mother was a cleaner,” she said.

The exhibition runs from November 3rd to 20th at the Ancienne Gare, Fribourg.

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INTERVIEW: ‘My goal is to dig up the outrageous facts about Switzerland that startle you’

"Why do the Swiss have such great sex?" That's the title of a new book by Swiss/American author Ashley Curtis which reveals a Switzerland you never knew existed. The Local spoke to him recently to find out more.

INTERVIEW: 'My goal is to dig up the outrageous facts about Switzerland that startle you'
Photo courtesy of Ashley Curtis.

Covering everything from cow suicides to free heroin for addicts and the real story of William Tell, Curtis's book is a humorous yet serious take on a country that often finds itself reduced to a handful of stereotypes.

“I wanted to answer the questions about Switzerland no one would ever think of asking,” the author told The Local, speaking of the inspiration behind the book.

The writer has had plenty of time to dwell on the mysteries of Switzerland. He attended primary school here, visited regularly in the years that followed, and then worked for over 20 years at the independent Ecole d’Humanité school in the canton of Bern, where he taught maths and physics in the morning and climbing and ski touring in the afternoon.

Curtis’s scientific bent is clear in “Why do the Swiss have great sex?”. Some of the most inspired sections delve deep into statistics (How much would it cost to buy Switzerland? Nine trillion Swiss francs, for the bits that are available. Could the whole world sleep in Switzerland? Yes. Although they wouldn’t have space to do much else.).

Read also: Six authors who found inspiration in Switzerland

A lot of the pleasure in the book, though, comes from sheer surprise.

“The most fun sections to write were those where I had an inkling of the answer and then all the facts would fall into place.” he says.

“Then it was like a moment of breathlessness. As my girlfriend said, it's like these questions are trap doors to a whole other Switzerland.”

The section about what happens to Switzerland’s nuclear waste was one of these experiences. With nuclear power responsible for just over a third of the country’s electricity generation, Curtis wanted to know what happened to all that toxic waste.

“As I was looking into this, I learned it was shipped out of the country in huge steel containers and tested by a German government agency called BAM. You couldn't make it up,” Curtis says with delight.

Another section on energy generation also saw the Californian-born author encountering one of the rare obstacles to his research.

Operators at the Grande Dixence hydropower plant in Valais didn’t take kindly to his questions regarding the cleanliness of their power production after he noted they were actually using electricity from potentially dirty sources to pump water back up to their reservoir.

In fact, the book doesn’t shy away from the tough issues, with money-laundering dictators, the high number of foreign prisoners in Switzerland’s jails, and its poor record on homophobia all coming in for analysis.

“My goal was to dig up those outrageous things that startle you,” he explains.

So what still surprises Curtis about Switzerland?

“It’s the combination of conservatism and being completely open. On the one hand you have this unbelievable rigidity about the smallest things and then you have this acceptability of ideas that would be unthinkable in the US like legalized prostitution, free heroin for addicts and assisted suicide.”

And why do the Swiss have such great sex (at least according to a 2013 YouGov survey)?

To answer the question, Curtis takes readers on a historical tour of spa culture, seventeenth century dating rituals in canton Bern and modern-day sex education in Zurich kindergartens, which includes the use of wooden penises and plush vaginas (backed by the Supreme Court no less).

He also dives once more into the world of statistics but concludes with an answer no one can really argue with.

“Nations don’t have sex. People do.”

“Why Do The Swiss Have Such Great Sex: Extraordinary Answers to 66 Improbable Questions about Switzerland” is published by Bergli Books. It can be purchased here.