Norway teaches migrants about Western women

Media captionNorway’s migrants taught ‘cultural codes’

Should Western relationship norms be taught to migrants? The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme attended a controversial class in Norway that aims to teach asylum seekers how to interact with women.

“When you move to another country, there will be different cultural codes compared to what you are used to,” says instructor Margaret Bergh.

“And that will be codes that are not written or spoken about.

“Somebody has got to tell them what is normal behaviour.”

In 2009, a spate of rapes by migrant men in Norway prompted the introduction of the controversial classes for refugees.

Incidents of mass sexual assault by gangs of men in the German city of Cologne at the new year shone a light on this approach.

Now, other European countries are thinking of introducing similar training.

The class in Heugesand, in west Norway, is no longer just about rape prevention.

Now, it includes discussions around communicating with the opposite sex, boundaries, domestic violence, and what to do if you witness a sexual assault.

Public awareness videos about rape are also shown.

It lasts four hours, and is not compulsory – although many refugees take it as part of a series of courses offered to new arrivals, including language courses and help with finding work.

In this class, most are Syrian, but there are also some Iraqis and Afghans.


  • Norway had 848,000 immigrants – 16.3% of the 5,086,000 population – at start of 2016
  • There were 31,145 asylum applications in 2015
  • In 2014, 1,266 sexual crimes charges were filed, including charges against 1,099 Norwegian, 20 Afghan, 12 Iraqi and one Syrian citizens

The course allows the men the space to have conversations they would not have had back home.

It begins with a picture of a Western woman in a mini-skirt.

The men are asked what they think the woman does for a living – model or actress they reply.

Image caption

The men appeared keen to avoid cultural misunderstandings

The men are from varied social and economic backgrounds.

Those from bigger towns and cities say it would be perfectly normal to see a woman dress like this, others are not so sure.

The class conversation moves on to rape between a married couple – one insists a married man cannot, as far as the law is concerned, rape his wife, but he is told by others in the group that he can.

They discuss how culture and religion play a role.

“We have family courts in Iraq,” one man says.

“Sometimes a woman who is raped by a man will end up being forced to marry him by the families, to stop people talking.”

‘Build trust’

Preben Svenstand, who runs the refugee centre, does not think the classes stigmatised the men, as statistics show most rapes in Norway are not committed by migrants.

“What we do is give them the most information possible about society they just arrived to, so they can be as successful as possible,” he says.

“It’s not just about the training itself, it’s about creating a good relationship with the people who live with us, so they can build trust, and if they have any challenges in the future they will hopefully have the confidence to come and ask us for advice if they need to.”

The men say they do not feel patronised by the classes.

“It’s known in society that sexual violence is wrong. Any rational person knows that,” one says.

“The difference is that you guys talk about it, and we don’t. So it’s a good thing.”

‘All human beings’

But there are deeper reasons why these men attend these classes.

Many say they wanted not just safety, food and shelter in Norway, but an active life with meaningful relationships.

They do not see the courses as rape prevention – they take them because they hope they might make it easier to find a partner and ease what is often a very solitary existence.

Mohammad, 27, from Baghdad, has been in Norway seven months and would like to meet someone.

Asked if he understood why some Europeans thought he should not be dating local women, he replies: “What’s the difference between people? What’s the problem? The problem is if I do something bad with her. And then you know how people will talk about us, as refugees.

“OK, there are differences between cultures. I hope and I wish that people speak with me about my culture. Not only give bad opinions. We are all human beings.”

The Victoria Derbyshire programme is broadcast on weekdays between 09:00-11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.

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