Saturday, October 15, 2016

Europe is trying to teach its gender norms to refugees

This turns out to be more complicated than it sounds

Few men can roll a condom onto a plastic penis with a straight face, and Ali and Ahmadzai are no exceptions. The two Afghan asylum-seekers and ten other men are taking a sex-education class at the refugee centre where they live in the Flemish town of Broechem, and the giggles are flying. “In Logar, where I’m from, you don’t talk with girls,” explains Ahmadzai. If you do, the Taliban “kill you with stones”. Belgium has been a bit of a culture shock, though he still doesn’t dare talk to girls: “It is good just looking at them.”

Ever since the mass sexual assaults in Cologne last New Year’s Eve, in which groups of mainly North African men groped, robbed or raped hundreds of women, European governments have worried that the chauvinist values of some of the immigrants they are absorbing could lead to trouble. Hence the classes at Broechem, which cover sexual health and respect for women. For now, they are voluntary, but Belgium plans to make sex education mandatory for all asylum-seekers by next year, as it already is in Norway. In Germany, too, the government decided in July to shift the focus of its integration courses from language learning to cultural values, including equality of the sexes.

One priority is preventing rape. Thomas Demyttenaere of Sensoa, a Belgian organisation that is designing a course on sexually transgressive behaviour, says he has never met a refugee who said it was acceptable to force someone to have sex. But understandings of consent can differ: “In a strong patriarchal society,” be it Muslim, Christian or Hindu, men “often feel they are entitled to have aggressive behaviour towards women.” The swarming sexual attacks seen in Cologne, reminiscent of similar behaviour in north African countries, have Europeans especially worried. Linda Hagen of Hero Norway, an organisation that manages 40% of that country’s refugee centres, says one goal of sex education courses there is simply to teach refugees that if they try anything like that in Scandinavia, “they will get caught.”

At the same time, the courses may be just as necessary for the refugees’ own integration in European societies as they are to protect the women with whom they interact. Staff at the Broechem centre regularly receive complaints from local parents that asylum applicants are harassing their daughters. New female staff are also frequently hit upon. Carla Pannemans, who has been teaching sex education to refugees there for ten years, says many simply do not understand local codes of behaviour; when they try to talk to girls, “people will see it as aggressive.”

Teaching sexual norms is tricky, though, particularly when European societies do not agree on what those norms should be. In Norway, Ms Hagen’s course uses photos of pop stars to explain that styles of dress, however scanty, are expressions of individual freedom rather than signals of availability, and must be respected. At the same time, bizarrely, it coaches male refugees to protect their reputations by not seeking girls who are “easy”. Meanwhile, in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, an information sheet used in integration classes cites “gallantry” as an ideal: men should open the door for women, carry their heavy bags and offer to help them put on their coats. Plenty of feminists, in Belgium or elsewhere in Europe, would find this patronising.

Most of the refugees who receive the classes seem to welcome them. Many have never had any formal sex education: of the 12 men in the class at Broechem, most of whom hail from African or Middle Eastern countries, only one, an Albanian refugee, said he received any form of sex education at school. Abdullah Sameer, a 21-year-old refugee from Baghdad who lives in the Broechem centre, calls the courses “perfect”. “Everybody should respect women,” he says—though he considers himself among the few enlightened men in his country. Most people, he says, “need some classes”.

It is not clear to what extent European fears of sexual assault by migrants are founded in reality. There have been no more attacks of the magnitude of those in Cologne. A report in February by Germany’s federal criminal police, the Bundeskriminalamt, showed that refugees were responsible for only 3.6% of the sexual offences in Germany in 2015. Many of the refugees are victims of rape rather than perpetrators: female refugees face sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers and even reception centre staff, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Indeed, while Europeans may feel anxious that migrants are importing Middle Eastern values, the migrants are having at least as hard a time adjusting to European ones. Mr Demyttenaere says many of the migrants he knows find Belgian sexual morals “shocking”. “On the one hand, there are adverts with half-naked women,” he says. “On the other, it is very hard to ask women out. They find this confusing.” Welcome to the West.

This article appeared in the Print Edition with the headline: Belgian girls aren’t easy

From THE ECONOMIST

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