Wanted: A Modern Cambodian Woman

Nov 08, 2010

They survived years of war and genocide, but can’t seem to free themselves from the shackles of a patriarchal society.

The flawless Apsara women lining the walls of Angkor Wat, representing the virtuous female, have never ceased to amaze me; but at the same time my jaw drops thinking of the paradox that exists in the present-day Cambodia. Women are asked to achieve perfection but often held back as they strive towards self-improvement.

The role of woman in Cambodia’s past is irrefutable, as is their importance in today’s society. But it is equally certain that critical damage has been done to many of the Kingdom’s females by the social forces and systematic flaws that have kept generations of woman away from schools and a proper education.

Like many Cambodian women today, my deceased grandmother was confined to her house. Her main task as a young woman was to prepare herself to be somebody’s wife. She wasn’t taught to read because her parents were afraid she would write love letters and elope. As the young boys went to the pagoda to study with monks (who were also the only public educators at the time), women remained illiterate and intellectually barren.

Despite the fact that schools have opened their doors to girls, and the government has made it a priority to get them in the classroom, a history of prioritising the education of men has hardly been washed away. Head to the garment factories: more than 90% of the workers are women. A majority of them have been on one end of the “push/pull effect” of labour migration, i.e. the attraction of a salary pulling them in while their family pushes them out to earn. Or talk to any organisation working in education in the Kingdom and they will tell you one of the hardest parts of keeping girls in schools is convincing families of the long-term benefits of an educated daughter.

As a Khmer woman, I, too, am required by tradition to uphold the image of my family – speak softly, walk lightly and be well mannered.

As a Khmer woman, I, too, am required by tradition to uphold the image of my family – speak softly, walk lightly and be well mannered. If I laugh loudly, I am reminded of oft-repeated admonitions. Also, maintaining my virginity until marriage is often seen as more important than the quality of my character.

But the expectation that young women today should remain Srey Krup Leakenak, “a pure and virtuous woman”, is downright disturbing to me, especially when we are asked to prepare ourselves to compete in a highly competitive job market. The saying goes that Khmer girls are white cotton while a boy is a gem. When white cotton is muddied, it can never be returned to its original state while a dirtied gem can glitter time and again.

While these lessons may not be part of government policy or school textbooks, they are learned from a young age and their effect can be disastrous. The reality of the situation is that the quiet, subservient Khmer woman today often receives little respect for her efforts to be srey krou leakenak while making herself vulnerable to domestic violence, workplace and academic discrimination or sexual abuse.

But, as always, there are some shining examples of the human spirit rising above the obstacles set out by society. Sold into prostitution as a small child, Somaly Mam survived years of trauma and emerged a strong, beautiful and driven women. She has since written the book, The Road of Lost Innocence, and set up AFESIP (Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances) that has rescued thousands of Cambodian women from sexual slavery and abuse. Somaly Mam argues the status of Cambodian women in society is still fragile in every respect, but her very presence is a case against the inferiority of women.

Somaly Mam is not srey krup leakenak in the way traditionalists might want, but she is the kind of woman that female youth can look up to and respect. She has been kicked around in the dirt, but if she were cotton she is still crisp and brilliant white.

The opportunities for women are expanding in the Kingdom, and more parents are choosing the same path that my parents chose by encouraging their daughters to live with freedom and follow their dreams. However, it’s still a long way to go before woman experience the same status in Cambodian society as men. While social programmes, policies of equality and women’s rights campaigns can help in this cause; it is women like Somaly Mam who provide an irrefutable argument against archaic ideas about Cambodian women and change the way that women live in the Kingdom.


116 The author, Kounila Keo, regularly writes for The Phnom Penh Post and Agence France-Presse (AFP).


This post was originally published on The Phnom Penh Post and Blue Lady Blog in September 2010.