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My Column for International Women's Day

Happy International Women Day. Let's celebrate it every day, not just the 8th of March. :)
Happy International Women Day. Let’s celebrate it every day, not just the 8th of March. 🙂

Like many women, I grew up thinking I would never be a perfect Cambodian woman. I laughed too loudly and walked too fast. Even in university, I was occasionally taunted by classmates, who told me to walk slowly and laugh quietly.

It seems that wherever one is, there are still expectations placed on women.

Look at the flawless Apsara dancers lining the walls of Angkor Wat, all embodying the pure and virtuous archetype of Srey Krup Leakenak, the “perfect woman”. In many ways, they represent the expectations that have long limited Cambodian women.

Women my mother’s age, 55, were born in the time when girls were still taught the Chbab Srey, either by their mothers or in elementary school. The Chbab Srey is a code of conduct composed of poetic verses outlining the behavior Cambodian women must follow to be deemed pure and virtuous.

The Chbab Srey lays out a set of rules and principles for girls as well as married women, and encourages deference to husbands’ desires. You will go with your husband to the dragon world, it says. You must remember to serve your husband. Don’t make him unhappy. Never touch his head.

A woman, it further stipulates, must be polite and shy.

While there is also the Chbab Proh, a code of conduct for men, its rules are far less stringent.

In 2007, after urging from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Chbab Srey was pulled from schools’ curriculums. Yet, for many women, its admonitions still run deep in Cambodian culture.

For Cambodian women today, gender discrimination is generally the result of cultural norms, not legislative mandates. In many rural areas, the Chbab Srey is still followed to the letter, and women’s subservience to men contributes to the country’s widespread domestic violence.

When I travelled to rural provinces asking women about their experiences, I asked what kind of husband they would pick. Many said simply, “One who drinks less and beats me less.”

At the same time, conditions for women in Cambodia are generally improving. Women are often the primary breadwinners for their families, and growing numbers of parents, like my own, encourage their daughters to follow their dreams.

For now, Cambodian must continue to challenge the cultural norms embodies in the saying “Boys are gems, but girls are white cotton.” Today, everyone can be a gem. Many Cambodian women have already broken gender barriers at all levels of society. Let’s leave Srey Krup Leakenak and just keep looking ahead.

Original link: Phnom Penh Post, http://www.phnompenhpost.com/7days/3287-a-final-note-on-trying-to-be-the-perfect-woman

9 thoughts on “My Column for International Women's Day

  1. Well-said!
    It is the fact that the so-called ‘Chhab Srey’ was written by a male author. In other word, this is a Do-What-I-Think-Is-Right codes of conduct from male perspective. Well, this social norm puts expectation and pressure on women and had been practiced in many places in the world. Why? ‘Misogyny’.
    Hope your message is heard and women would get rid of the idea of being so-called ‘Perfect’.
    <3

  2. I am going to Cambodia on September this year. Besides Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are also listed to be visited. But still I have a question about a hotel you might have seen during your visit in Siem Reap. I booked the following hotel: Tara Angkor Hotel. You know if it is a good hotel? I heard good stories about it. What are the best attractions to visit in Siem Reap and in the surrounding?

  3. @Prathna: you nailed it. Chbab Srey was written by a male author. Thanks for your comment. 🙂
    @Emma Becker: I haven’t stayed at Tara Angkor Hotel before, but I drove past the hotel often when I stayed in SR. TripAdvisor might have rated the hotel, so you can google that as well. I recommend this link if you visit Siem Reap and wanna know where in SR you should go: http://wikitravel.org/en/Siem_Reap

  4. IT’s beautifully written.
    Love it and hope other women will see this and self-empower themselves to move forward.

  5. Dear Kounila,

    Thank you for your response. It was very helpful.
    I will have a look at the the website you recommended me.

  6. Greetings Kounila,
    The perfect woman? About as much chance as finding the perfect man I reckon! You keep laughing loudly. Yep, just be who you are.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if women in most places are not quite up there yet, but you will make it…just keep @ it. There is obviously a little more work for you in Asia.

    Anyway, enjoyed the blog; have been very lucky to visit (in 2007 I think). Great blog header too, with your 2-big feet. (Only joking about the `big’ thing.)
    Cheers, ic

  7. There’s been plenty of discussion of the Chbap Srey, but very little of the Chbap Pros.
    Any one who asks women to conform to the Chbab Srey would do well to look at the moral restrictions of the Chbap Pros. I’m going to see if I can get my hands on an English translation. 😉

  8. i think we can challenge that throught educational system and this is the role of mistry of women affairs and misitey of education youth and sports.

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