Norway is teaching male refugees from conservative societies about Norwegian sexual norms and laws, to help them adapt to a country where women have greater freedoms, wear fewer clothes and walk alone in public.
A voluntary five-hour programme offered nationwide involves group discussions of sex and rape, and teaches that types of violence considered ‘honourable’ in some cultures are illegal and shameful in Norway.
Its manual says, “to force someone into sex is not permitted in Norway, even when you are married to that person.”
Most European countries have avoided such integration initiatives, fearing they may stigmatise refugees as potential rapists and fuel anti-immigration rhetoric.
When the former head of the Oslo police’s violent crime department, Hanne Kristin Rohde, said in 2011 that there was a “clear statistical connection” between rapes and non-Western male migrants, she was met with hostility, she told The New York Times.
“This is a cultural problem”, she said. “There are lots of men who haven’t learned that women have value”.
But “the biggest danger for everyone is silence”, said Per Isdal, a clinical psychologist at Alternative to Violence, the Norwegian non-profit organisation running the programme.
Many refugees “come from cultures that are not gender equal and where women are the property of men”, said Ms Isdal. “We have to help them adapt to their new culture.”
Abdu Osman Kelifa, an Eritrean asylum seeker to Norway, volunteered for the classes in Sandnes.
In Eritrea, “if someone wants a lady, he can just take her and he will not be punished,” Mr Kelifa told The New York Times.
He said he had learned how not to misread signals such as women wearing short skirts, smiling at him or walking without a male escort at night. But it was still difficult for him to accept that a woman could accuse her husband of sexual assault, he said.
A former police chief in Stavanger, the first town to introduce the classes to its large migrant population, supports the classes.
“People from some parts of the world have never seen a girl in a miniskirt, only in a burqa”, he told the New York Times. “When they get to Norway, something happens in their heads.”
The teaching material avoids casting immigrants as sexual predators. It uses a native Norwegian character, Arne, as its example of violent sexual behaviour, while an immigrant character, Hassan, is “honest and well liked”.
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