Pierre-Henry Deshayes, AFP, January 19, 2016
“She kissed him–it’s an invitation to have sex.” The asylum seeker’s answer hangs in the air. The instructor’s smile falters, and an explanation is required.
In Norway, migrants are being given courses to prevent violence against women, especially rape, and to teach them how to interpret customs in a country that may seem surprisingly liberal to them.
The courses were introduced several years ago, but have become particularly topical after complaints of mass sexual assault on New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne, by a crowd of mostly Arab and North African men.
This particular morning at the Ha reception centre in southwestern Norway, a dozen Syrian and Sudanese asylum seekers fidget in their seats in a small room as their group discussion starts.
“The idea behind this course is to talk about risk situations that can arise when it comes to rapes and sexual assaults,” the group’s leader Linda Hagen says, kicking off the class in Norwegian, with an interpreter translating to Arabic.
The participants brainstorm scenarios where cultural differences may cause misunderstandings.
Little by little, they warm up and begin to speak.
“If she wants come to my place, that means she’s consenting,” says one Syrian.
“But if she’s drunk, how can I be sure that she wants to sleep with me?” asks a Sudanese man.
“If she says no, I don’t do anything against her will,” insists a third.
Those attending all seem to agree the course is useful.
“For me, I have no problem because my city is an open city and my sister, my mum, they’re very similar to (the women) here,” a 42-year-old Syrian tells AFP, asking to use the pseudonym Mikael Homsen.
“But I have friends, they come from a different culture, from a strict family. For them, any part a woman shows (is) a sign she wants to have sex,” he says.
Hero launched its course after a series of rapes committed by foreigners in the southwestern town of Stavanger between 2009 and 2011.
“We invite the residents, both women and men, to have a dialogue about cultural norms and to take responsibility if they see something,” says Hero’s director Tor Brekke.
The Cologne incidents are on everybody’s mind: 766 police reports filed, including 497 for sexual assault, which police have blamed on Arab and North African men.