OSLO (AFP) - Sexual advances or just friendly gestures? In a bid to prevent violence against women, Norway is offering asylum seekers courses in how to interpret mores in a country that may seem astonishingly liberal to them.
A debate on integration has flared in Germany after New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne, where more than 100 women reported being sexually assaulted or robbed by men described as being of Arab or North African origin.
Questions are also being raised about how to integrate men from patriarchal societies into Europe, where emancipated women dress skimpily, go out, and drink and party.
"Our aim is to help asylum seekers avoid mistakes as they discover Norwegian culture," explained Linda Hagen of Hero, a private company that runs 40 per cent of Norway's reception centres for asylum seekers.
"There's no single cultural code to say what is good or bad behaviour because we want a free society," she said.
"There has to be tolerance for attitudes that may be seen as immoral by some traditional or religious norms."
After what she called a "wave of rapes" committed mostly by foreigners in the southwestern town of Stavanger between 2009 and 2011, Hero launched a course at some of its centres that touches on cultural differences regarding women.
The course, which Hero has tacked onto the immigration agency's broader, mandatory introduction programme to Norway, addresses the problem of sexual assault, using concrete examples for the participants to discuss.
"It could be an 18-year-old guy who says he's surprised by the interest some Norwegian girls are showing in him. He assumes they want to sleep with him," Hagen said.
"So the group leader will ask him: Who are these girls? Where do you meet them? How do you know it is sex they want? Not all women in Norway are the same," she added.
To avoid stigmatising immigrants, the role of sexual predator in these scenarios may be assigned to a Norwegian.
"We turn the roles around a bit because there are rapists in all ethnic groups," Hagen said.
Xenophobic blogs are, however, rife with reports of violent attacks allegedly committed by foreigners, including a November incident in which a 12-year-old girl was physically molested by two underage asylum seekers.
"This programme can only have a short-term effect, given the attitudes abroad where women are oppressed," said Hege Storhaug of the anti-immigration group Human Rights Service.
"To put an end to these attitudes, immigration has to first be restricted, then you have to concentrate on the newly-arrived immigrants and the second generation to assimilate them to our basic values, such as gender equality," she said.
While on a much smaller scale than the Cologne assaults, other incidents have been reported involving foreigners on New Year's Eve in Helsinki and Zurich, in countries that have opened their doors to migrants to a much lesser extent than Germany.
"I fear that problems like this are going to increase in intensity in the coming years," said Storhaug, who said she has observed, especially among Muslim foreigners, an "extremely sexualised and degrading" view of women.
"Women's freedoms are already on the decline in Europe."
But awareness programmes for migrants are not a cure-all.
"I don't think a course on its own can protect us from things that depend so heavily on social structures," admitted psychologist Per Isdal.
"To prevent sexual assaults by men, you have to provide good living conditions, such as a job and housing, and combat poverty."
Together with the Alternative to Violence (ATV) foundation, Isdal has devised another, broader programme of "dialogue groups" focused on preventing violence, including sexual attacks, which were run as a nationwide experiment in 2013 and 2014.
In these classes too, rather than having a teacher instructing students, the emphasis is on groups holding discussions and exchanges of ideas, moderated by specially-trained ATV employees.
"The first reactions were partly negative among... some reception centre employees who wanted to defend the asylum seekers. They were worried that the project would be stigmatising," Isdal said.
"But the asylum seekers themselves found these dialogue groups very helpful."
Norwegian migration authorities, whose capacities have been strained by the influx of migrants last year, have yet to decide whether to pursue the dialogue groups.