If you've ever driven or walked through Berne, Switzerland's beautiful and picturesque capital city, you may have noticed them: Berne's feminist graffiti.

The graffiti themselves are nothing fancy, just plain red letters. But what they say is not the usual -"Ben liebt Anna" or "Du bist scheisse!" or " Ausländer raus!" - no, they spell out rather smart, pithy slogans that sometimes make you smile, sometimes make you frown and almost always make you think.

One of them:

"Anna lacht über Soziologie" - "Anna laughs at sociology"

used to be on the wall of the Unitobler - one of the many buildings forming the University of Berne. You will notice that I used the past tense - it was painted over on 22. October last year. That provoked an article in the University Newspaper "unikum": "Nachruf auf das lustigste und geheimnisvollste Unitobler Graffiti" - "Obituary on the funniest and most mysterious Unitobler Graffiti." Having myself oft-times wondered about these sprayings I would like to share some of the article's revelations with you.

Who and why?

There are several rumours as to who put them there and why. Since they are also on the university walls they were even analysed in a lecture on hermeneutics. I have to share an excerpt of their conclusions with you, as the sheer intricateness of their sentences made me laugh:

  • Why, what:
    "Hierbei handelt es sich um eine besondere Form von "Sprayereien", mit denen eine subversive Form von Gegenöffentlichkeit durchaus konsequent hergestellt wird in einer ästhetisch und in sich konsistenten und schlüssigen Gestaltungsform bei deren fraglosem Gelingen die verblüffende Semantik der inhaltlich lapidaren Feststellungen eine tragende Rolle spielt."
    "What we have here is a special form of graffiti, with which a subversive form of counter-publicity is being rather consistently established in an aesthetic and in itself consistent and conclusive presentation. The intriguing semantics of the textually succinct statements certainly played an important role in its unquestionable success.
    Who:
    "Hier muss es sich um eine "toughe" Feministin, durchaus nicht unsympathisch, handeln."
    "Here we have a 'tough' feminist and in no way an unpleasant one.
  • Another interviewee, a student with feministic background, who claims that she neither sprays nor does she know the delinquents, calls attention to the political statements implicit and explicit in the graffiti:
    "Each single slogan taken by itself may seem blithe. Also when you look at them isolated they don't have such a direct textual statement as for example a graffito on the subject of the war in Afghanistan has. But the political statement lies in the whole of them. The slogans are everywhere, all over the city. In each statement there is another name, some of them are old-fashioned, some are obviously foreign. The women mentioned in these sayings are active and they act. This together with the fact that there are so many of them in Berne rouses the idea of a strong group. And in this way it symbolises the solidarity of women."
    Who? - a group or a single actor?:
    "Maybe the amount and variety of slogans is founded on a chain reaction, started by a single woman who put the first slogan on the wall. She was then imitated by other women who continued the idea in the same style. But now, when I come to think of how many sentences there are, the idea of an organised group seems much more likely."
  • Nina, as she calls herself, is one of the first sprayers. She can't recall when exactly she went out to spray for the first time,
    "It was two to three years ago with the intention of creating an awareness for the 25. November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women."
    but she tells about her reasons:
    She sprays to express her political opinion. She thinks the term 'Feminism' problematic - because what does it mean really? "There are as many different understandings of feminism as there are women who call themselves feminists. To me it means that I want equality of treatment and equal opportunities for both men and women, and this not only where wages are concerned. There has to be a deeper change in self-conception and in the perception of women. The rates of structural and domestic violence are still very high, not to speak of those of sexual abuse. I believe that we have to start changing things on a very low/deep level. That is why I and others write. There is a need for continuity so that the thinking process and dialogue are sustained. When I write something on a wall and many others see it and a few of those start thinking: "Well, why shouldn't a woman do this - repair stuff themselves, build log cabins, answer back, defend themselves?", then the graffiti has triggered something. That's what I think about when my bus drives past a slogan. Then I rejoice for a moment. And I rejoice even more about each new woman who joins in."

Reactions?

  • Professor of Sociology Andreas Diekmann is indirectly responsible for the removal of "Anna lacht über Soziologie". He had asked for the removal of Anti-American graffiti that appeared after the attacks of the 11. September, but had also specifically asked for "Anna" to be left in place. As he himself asked: "But isn't it art?" He was not listened to.

  • In one of the discussions the objection was raised that the protagonists in the phrases are actually mimicking the men's mistakes, when they "beat" and "not hesitate".

  • Perhaps the most interesting reactions are the graffiti written in answer to the original ones.
    • "Kurt schaut hin" - "Kurt looks closely" is almost certainly a reaction to "Ida schaut hin".

    • Written next to "Tina lässt sich nichts gefallen" - "Tina will not put up with it" you can find in a different handwriting but still in red letters: "Tom ist solidarisch! ...er macht den Haushalt" - "Tom shows solidarity! ...he does the housework". Obviously someone has been provoked into thought here.

    • Next to "Sibille macht Kampfsport. Sie hat den schwarzen Gürtel" - "Sibille practises martial arts. She has a black belt" you can find: "Harte Nüsse haben weiche Kerne" - "Hard nuts have soft cores" and the even more provocative "Peter steht dazwischen und hat zerquetschte Eier" - "Peter interferes and has squashed balls".

Where can I find them? - What do they say?

They are everywhere, in richer and quieter quarters as well as in the lively inner city or as until now on the university walls. They belong to Berne like the Zeitglockenturm but you won't find their mention in any travel guide.
Here is a list of some of them. I've tried to sort them into groups of a common theme.

I think the following form the core of the slogans. They talk about emancipated women high in self-esteem. Women who know what they want, and more importantly - what they don't want. What they can't accept. And what they do about it. They don't necessarily give the impression that this has always been the case. To me it seems more as if these women have grown through their experience and found their self-confidence on their way here.

"Doris kuscht nicht" - "Doris doesn't knuckle down "
"Kira wehrt sich" - "Kira answers back"
"Carmen rebelliert" - "Carmen rebels"
"Helen lässt sich nicht betatschen" - "Helen will not be touched"
"Tina lässt sich nichts gefallen" - "Tina will not put up with it"
"Paula schweigt nicht" - "Paula will not remain silent"
"Özlem leistet Widerstand" - "Özlem offers resistance"

The next little group talks about women acting in a way that has, for generations, been pictured as un-womanly to them and to others.

"Ida schaut hin" - "Ida looks closely"
"Naomie ist kritisch" - "Naomie is critical"

"Martina überfällt" - "Martina assaults"
"Julia schlägt Romeo" - "Julia beats Romeo"

"Lea lebt wild" - "Lea lives wildly"
"Sabine lacht laut" - "Sabine laughs aloud"

As the above describe "typical" male behaviour patterns, the following show women pursuing "typical" male activities.

"Anna geht an Demos" - "Anna goes to demonstrations"
"Susi sprayt" - "Susi sprays"
"Siri hackt!" - "Siri hacks!"
"Sibille macht Kampfsport - Sie hat den schwarzen Gürtel" - "Sibille practises martial arts - She has a black belt"
"Iris repariert selbst" - "Iris fixes stuff herself"

This last group contains my favourite. The use of old-fashioned names is a good indicator that they are talking about mature, middle-aged or even old women as is the case with "Granny". I believe this is also the age group these slogans mainly aim at. I think my generation and the following (us in our twenties and the young-uns coming after us) are probably less caught up in these preconceptions.
"Rösli nennt sich jetzt Rosa" is my favourite. "Rösli" is the diminutive of "Rosa", usually applied to children. It being in fashion about 50 to 70 years ago makes her about the same age. In fact I know several elderly ladies going by this name. And this "Rösli" has now decided that she wants her name to reflect her maturity. After all, she's a grown woman. I know that names aren't everything, yet they can influence our perception of people. If nothing else they change the way we approach someone. (We all know this as we usually choose our nicks with exactly these thoughts in mind.) Her using the mature version of her name, might just make people approach her with a bit more respect and grant her (subconsciously even) the ability of self-determination.

"Oma fackelt nicht lange" - "Granny doesn't hesitate"
"Olga macht keine Diät" - "Olga doesn't diet"
"Rösli nennt sich jetzt Rosa" - "Rosy now calls herself Rose"

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