A Proper Woman

Cambodian society has always been rigid. The country’s rich culture, traditions and adherence to Buddhism has remained largely intact since the pinnacle of the Angkorian civilization for which Cambodia is famous. For older generations such as my mother’s, adherence to the strict rules that all people had to follow was unquestioned. 

Yet today, in a country where 32 percent of the population are under 14, a great number of people are growing up who were not directly affected by the turmoil and civil war that dominated Cambodia for the last 30 years. This social evolution and drive for change, aided by largely unhindered access to the internet and improvements in education means that a new generation of Cambodians is seeking equality and agency that was simply not possible before. This is especially apparent when it comes to gender equality and women’s rights.

When I was young my mother used to tell me stories about how girls had perform household chores like cooking, cleaning and weaving, and only rarely left the house. Women were not permitted to talk openly with men, and with limited access to higher education it was nearly impossible for women reach that level of study. My mother was never able to achieve her dream of becoming a teacher and ended up in an arranged married when she was 21 years old. She first met her husband to be, my father, on their wedding day. 

Those same cultural norms were instilled in me since I could walk and talk. I learned those norms at school and witnessed them at home from my family. But I have always found it difficult to live in a society in which you must remain conscious at all times of entrenched gender roles, subservience and how to be “a proper woman.”  Such norms have given me reasons to fight for what I want and who I want to be without being shaped by cultural expectations. And yet I realize that it is particularly tricky for me at this time in Cambodia because I exist in a transitional space that values a modern, global perspective alongside the beauty of its traditional culture and community. 

If I want to be free from the rules and norms that currently make me a second-class citizen, I am therefore forced to fight and live a very different life from that of what is thought of for “a proper woman.” In order to live my life, I need to be prepared to receive criticism from others, even though I have done no harm to anyone, simply because I want to do what I know is right. The societal rules and cultural norms were created in a world that has long since passed. So why can’t I stand up for my own thoughts and perspectives? It hurts me to live in a society that does not uphold equality for both genders. I have asked myself so many times about the bias of culture norms in my society, and why blame is typically put on women.  “As a woman, no matter what you say, never talk foolishly or loudly. As for your virtue, work hard and protect yourself and your virginity.” 

At school in Cambodia, we are taught how to behave like ‘proper Cambodian woman,’ following mantra and beliefs passed down from older generations. But herein lies clear hypocrisy. The reality of Cambodian culture is that it is perfectly acceptable for men to have sex before marriage. While in one way acknowledging that this might not be considered virtuous, men are compared to gold; and as such when they get ‘dirty’ they can simply be washed clean. Women on the other hand are compared to sheets of white linen that once soiled can never be washed clean again. 

In practice this means it is fine for men to have sex with prostitutes, as long as they protect themselves and stop once they are married. Women, on the other hand, are absolutely prohibited from having sex before marriage, and if they do so, they are cursed. They will be blamed by their family and society in general for not having protected that most precious of things, their virtue. They will be blamed for having disgraced their family. They will be considered dirty, and people will speak poorly about them for the rest of their life. 

Female sex workers in Cambodia are looked down upon by society. They are not virtuous women, they do a dirty job. It raises the obvious question of who has created and sustains the demand for this market. Isn’t it the golden gender who is constantly in need of being washed clean?” Lomor Kero Rithy, is the co-founder of artistic student group Plerng Kob and a member of SmallWorld SmallBand, a cooperative work space and entrepreneurial collective based in Phnom Penh. She has strong views about cultural norms and how society treats women differently than men. 

“When a woman has a boyfriend, older people invariably warn her, ‘Be careful not to lose your virginity with your boyfriend. It is fine for a man because they are like gold, but as a woman, once he gets your body, he will run away and leave you.’ What is acceptable for a man isn’t for a woman. Don’t we have any value at all? If you lose your virginity with a man does it mean you have to marry him? Are we afraid of having no one to ask for our hand? In my opinion, if I have sex with you, it doesn’t mean I HAVE TO MARRY YOU. That’s my choice.”

Traditionally, women in Cambodia shouldn’t strive for higher education because a woman’s role is in the house. Society here is such that it is unthinkable for women to work as managers, architects, designers, entrepreneurs or leaders. I frequently hear that woman don’t need higher education because in the future she will be someone’s wife.

Another common belief I hear frequently is that girls shouldn’t travel far from their homes as it isn’t safe for them Why should a woman be scared to walk freely? Rather than confining women to their homes in fear, shouldn’t we educate men to respect women? Rape is commonly understood as a terrible thing, yet it is still very prevalent in societies around the world. When a woman is raped in Cambodia, she is considered spoiled. No one could possibly want to marry her. Why do we ask why she chose to go to such a dangerous place instead of asking why men force women to have sex against their will? Why must women remain victims?

Endear Van, CEO of E&T Asia providing the research logistic, base in Phnom Penh feels that women in Cambodia are viewed as weak and dependent -that a woman is incapable of looking after herself.  “If you are a woman living in Cambodia, you can expect to be questioned about your desire to go pretty much anywhere. ‘Why do you want to go there? It’s not safe! Just stay at home!’ Gender expectations serve to prevent women from doing anything new or exciting; most are successfully convinced that it’s not safe and that they can’t take care of themselves. What if someone wants to rape them? Can they protect themselves? As for the lack of women in leadership roles, it’s a matter of legacy. We haven’t seen many female leaders in the past, which leads to the belief that women are incapable. The limitations of the past still haunt the present. My response is yes, women can be leaders! How? You start with education, which is the foundation for equality. Then, if women are afforded the same opportunities as men, they can use their educated brain to make informed decisions about anything from politics to business to travelling safely without having to listen to people around them telling them what they can and can’t do.”

Issues of education, sexual practice and safety are not only an ever present burden for unmarried women. Such codes of conduct exist for all circumstances.  ”Forgive your husband; don’t speak in a way that suggests you consider him an equal.” Or “No matter what your husband says, even if he’s angry and cursing, don’t use strong language, complain and curse because your husband will be displeased. Be patient with him and calm your anger.” The rule states that women should remain quiet and subservient. Under no circumstances should they stand up for their rights because, if they do, the husband will become even angrier. Where can equality exist if not within the family?

Kounila Keo is a blogger and media consultant who is currently completing her master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “Neither women nor men should allow cultural norms or any kind of normalized behaviour to limit what they can do in society. The journey can be challenging and lonely, but once you challenge the norms, you gain pride and confidence and realize that everything can be considered impossible until it is done.”

I was born and raised hearing these rules and many more that are required of “a proper woman” to follow. A woman who will one day have a man ask for her hand in marriage. If a woman passes 25 years old, her family will start to worry that she will become an old maid. I want to live in a country where women are afforded more respect and more opportunities. I understand that true gender equality in Cambodia is still a long way off, but it’s a matter of basic human rights and dignity that women, like men, deserve to be truly valued. Because of the pain I feel as a woman born and raised in an unequal society, I want to speak out for the countless women who feel like they don’t have a voice.

Perhaps our society is afraid that if women are educated, they will stand up and fight for their rights, and men won’t be able to control them anymore. I have struggled from fighting for my freedom. I have been regularly criticized, people have talked poorly of me behind my back, they have insinuated certain things, and they have tried to influence my family to force me to discontinue my studies because, after all, I’m just a rural girl. But none of them could stop me. I broke many rules and sought my own freedom because I believe that the world will be more peaceful when the rights of all are equal. I know that women can do great things if given the opportunity. I do not think Cambodia should simply adopt foreign culture in replacement of our own, but I do feel that gender roles here are unjust. Our society needs to evolve and start treating women like human beings regardless of norms.


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