Swiss males protest loss of status as king of the castle

IT is hardly surprising, but some men are unhappy with the Swiss Federal Assembly's decision to topple them as head of the family. The outraged men have begun to gather signatures - 50,000 are needed - to force a referendum on Switzerland's new family law, which ends men's right to make all decisions for their families and mandates that they share decisionmaking with their wives. The law is due to take effect Jan. 1, 1987.

Leading the protest is a businessman and member of the lower house of parliament, Christoph Blocher.

''Astonishing,'' protests law school student and housewife Bea Birchmeier. ''The law only wants to give women their justified rights.''

Housewife and masseuse Ursula Scharenac exclaims: ''If you ask me, men like that are just afraid of women.''

Women's organizations have declared their determination to fight every inch of the way to see that the proposed referendum is defeated. The debate over the family law showed the enormous sensitivity of an issue that to many men and women means a new concept of the roles of the sexes in a society that has believed that women belong at home and men in the office.

Until the law was passed, the man was the undisputed head of the family in Switzerland. He could control his wife's finances, stop her from working outside the home, choose where the family lives, and determine the children's education. In any dispute his word was final.

Most modern Swiss families no longer believe in such strict role division. But because the system seems to have worked for this prosperous society up till now, some wonder: If we fiddle with family law, will the whole system collapse?

A court case heard in Zurich last August shows how the law has not kept pace with everyday living.

A housewife with grown children took a job in an office. Her marriage was not particularly happy. Her husband was not noted for generosity: She had received no pocket money in 22 years of marriage. She was happy to have some financial independence after so many years.

But her husband was far from pleased. For 22 years he had been the center of the household. Suddenly, he was responsible for making his own lunch. Sometimes his wife was still at the office when he came home for dinner.

He forbade her to work. She refused to quit her job. He told her to leave. She did. Both decided they should get a divorce. She asked for $600 a month maintenance, but the Zurich court ruled she had disobeyed him in working. She was granted no maintenance but was ordered to pay his court costs and $3,000 in damages.

Under Switzerland's new family law, such a court decision would be impossible. The new legislation sees marriage as a partnership. The old law said there was a clear role difference between the sexes: The wife was responsible for the household and the husband for financial upkeep. The new law does not determine responsibilities.

A couple is expected to work out what is the best division of labor for the family. This may mean the man becomes a househusband or the wife stays home, or they may divide both household and professional activity.

Other aspects of the new law: The marriage partner who stays at home has the right to receive a reasonable share of what is left after the family's needs have been covered. The idea is that the 7 to 10 percent of the family income that is not claimed by necessities must be divided equally between husband and wife.

Prof. Heinz Hausherr, one of the architects of the new law, says: ''In the present situation, a wife has no right to money for her smallest private wish. The husband can do what he likes - go to the bowling club when his wife does not have enough money for a visit to the coffee shop.''

And how will it be in higher income groups? The housewife is to have as much money for her spare-time activities as the husband has for his. Wives will retain control of their own finances. If there is a divorce, assets accumulated during the marriage will be divided equally. Each partner is responsible for his or her own debts. Previously, the husband was responsible for his wife's debts although she was not obliged to share her savings on the dissolution of the marriage.

These factors underscore that the law aims not only at giving women rights, but also at making them share responsibilities:

* There is to be no more keeping of secrets from one's spouse on how much is earned or owned. Both must provide full information on their financial position.

* Both partners decide where the family lives.

* Disagreements that cannot be resolved by the two can be brought before a judge.

Opponents cry that the family is violated as outside judges enter the intimate circle. Advocates respond that this is likely to happen only in unhappy marriages.

For 27 years Switzerland has considered bringing its marriage law up to date. The process was strengthened in 1971, when women received the right to vote in federal elections. A decade later, the people voted for a change in the Constitution that gave equal rights to both sexes.

The constitutional change now has to be translated into law. But each law can be challenged, if 50,000 signatures are gathered. If the challenge is successful , the law goes back to the drawing board.

Professor Hausherr points out that changes in Swiss life make a new law necessary. Some 39 percent of married Swiss women work outside the home. An average marriage lasts 45 years, and the care and education of children take up about half that period.

Hausherr protests that under present law, the husband of Elisabeth Kopp, who just last month became the first woman to sit on the seven-person Federal Council that governs Switzerland, could stop her from joining the government. As a member of the federal parliament, Mrs. Kopp fought strongly for the new law.

Andreas Gerwig, a Social Democratic politician and lawyer who battled for the law's acceptance, sees the new family law as a push for fathers to become more active within the family. ''If the concept behind the new law is to have a deeper meaning and practical results, then partnership means that it is the men who must rethink their function in the family. Men should invest more time in their families,'' he says.

Opponents reject such rethinking of the male role. Blocher draws on his pipe and declares: ''From my experience as father of four children - my wife is a teacher - I know that the division of roles has great importance. The problem with this law is that it stresses the individual rights of the marriage partners at the cost of the family.''

Blocher has met with some fiery opposition from within his own party, the Swiss People's Party, which has its roots among farmers and small business owners. Leading the internal attack is a farmer's wife and mother of three, Grete Brandli-Buhrer:

''Is it bad for the family when women are given an equal voice in the important family decisions? Is it exaggerated individualism if in the future not the man alone but men and women decide together? This new law is enormously important because with the present situation marriage is just not made attractive for women.''

Opponents are particularly concerned that women will be entitled to half the assets accumulated during marriage. Blocher claims that giving the woman such a share could ruin small businesses.

''Ridiculous,'' claims Christian People's Party parliamentarian Eva Segmuller. ''Do you think a woman who has helped build up a business is going to destroy it?''

The law has anticipated such problems by making payments in such cases gradual and stretching them over a number of years.

But the question of names really raises tempers. At present, if the man's name is Schmid and the woman's is Bundi, the family name is Schmid-Bundi and she is usually referred to as Mrs. Schmid. Under the new law, a woman can officially declare on marriage that her maiden name goes first, that means Bundi-Schmid, with the result that she could be referred to as Mrs. Bundi for short when he is Mr. Schmid.

There is little doubt that Blocher will gather the necessary signatures or that a fiery battle lies ahead. Any vote by the people would take place next year.

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