Finland has begun offering newly arrived migrants classes in European culture in a bid to tackle the “phenomenon” of gangs of men surrounding and sexually harassing women on the streets. The wide-eyed men are taught that women are equals, but they are reluctant to leave their old culture behind.
The voluntary classes predominantly focus on advising groups of migrants, mostly men, on liberal western attitudes towards women following a spate of Cologne-style attacks in Helsinki.
“So in Finland you can’t buy a wife,” Johanna, one of the teachers tells a group of students. “A woman will only be your wife if she wants to be – because here women are men’s equals.”
According to a BBC correspondent sitting in on the class, this news was met with mixed reactions. “Some of the young Iraqi men, who already speak good English and passable Finnish, nod sagely. Others, particularly the older men, stare at one another with raised eyebrows as Johanna’s words are translated into Arabic for them. […] there’s a faint smile on the lips of the only head-scarfed young woman in the room.”
Yet Johanna has more shocking information to impart: “But you can go out to the disco with a woman here,” she says brightly. “Although remember, even if she dances with you very closely and is wearing a short skirt, that doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with you.”
A Somalian teenager responds incredulously “This is a very liberal country. We have a lot to learn. In my country if you make sexy with a woman you are killed!”
A Malian fellow student concurs: “It’s quite amazing. In my country a woman should not go out without her husband or brother.”
When Johanna moves on to attitudes towards homosexuality, the men giggle and snigger.
Despite the laughter, the interior ministry and police are now taking the classes deadly seriously. The country is in turmoil following a series of Cologne-style sex attacks, whereby gangs of migrant men surround and sexually harass passing women, and thanks to a number of rapes by migrant men over the last year which have sparked controversy in the country.
In March, a young woman was followed home from the metro station in Tapanila, on the outskirts of Helsinki, by a gang of five Somalian boys aged between 15 and 18 who attacked and raped her. News of the perpetrators’ ethnicity sparked a fierce debate over migrant rape statistics in the country, as the number of rape suspects who are immigrants is far higher than the number of Finns accused of rape, in relation to the respective populations.
In fact, a 2014 study by the University of Helsinki law department found that African migrants are 16 times more likely to rape than native Finns, while those from North Africa and the Middle East were more than 17 times more likely.
Consequently, when a 15 year old girl was raped in August by two men whom she described as migrants, police initially tried to hide this information. Three days after the girl was attacked, police released a statement saying that her attackers had been caught and that they were ethnic Finns, something which the girl and her family vehemently deny.
Following a backlash of outrage on social media the police appear to have abandoned their tactic of denying the ethnicity of rape suspects. Instead, Helsinki’s deputy chief of police, Ilkka Koskimaki now hopes that revealing the truth will be the first step in tackling the problem.
“It’s difficult to talk about,” Koskimaki admits, “But we have to tell the truth. Usually we would not reveal the ethnic background of a suspect, but these incidents, where groups of young foreign men surround a girl in a public place and harass her have become a phenomenon.”
The men at the migrant centre are also being versed in Finnish law, and the legal consequences of sexually harassing or attacking women. Yet there are signs that the men will not readily shrug off their indigenous cultures just like that.
“It’s great in Finland,” an Iraqi tells the correspondent. “But when I marry, my wife will be a housekeeper who will cook the food I like – and she certainly won’t go to discos.”