It is often surprising for Western women in Cambodia, raised within feminism, to discover that many of the unwritten laws of female oppression are in fact written down - in the Chbap Srey. Don’t speak back to your husband, don’t laugh loudly, don’t walk fast, don’t turn your back in bed. Which is why few would perhaps consider it worth revising for contemporary times: is it still at all relevant or influential?
When American writer Elizabeth Anne Moore asked a group of young women she was teaching what parts of the arcane authority on Khmer womanhood they would most like to re-write, she was surprised to hear one law all agreed should remain: ‘be patient.’
Moore, a popular figure in America’s counter-culture, self-publishing scene and the 1990s riot grrrl movement, whose zines and creative non-fiction have earned her a devoted following, had to swallow her distaste for the word.
For her, patience was not a virtue necessary for getting things done.
“Because that is not interesting to me,” she laughs. “I actually think that my body of work and history of being in the world presents a pretty clear view that patience is always bad and so when it was sort of presented to me as not only the most important thing, but as the foundational thing from which we will build this project together, I was sort of like, ‘Oh okay’.”
The words ‘be patient’ begin the second chapter of New Girl Law: drafting a future for Cambodia, Moore’s new book documenting the passionate and sometimes heated discussions that arose around the premise of creating a new Chbap Srey. The sessions were part of a longer project the artist and writer began some months before: in 2007 Moore began holding workshops with 32 young women aged, living in a sponsored residential dormitory while they studied. Moore was there to teach the group how to make zines – handmade, drawn and stapled booklets that can cover a multitude of niche subjects but are by their nature uniquely personal. The thirty-two made and distributed the zines and the resulting story of their time together, the small-press publication Cambodian Grrrl: self-publishing in Phnom Penh was a critical success, including last year winning a best travel journalism award.
But the affirming and often heart warming stories of Cambodian Grrrl didn’t give voice to the inequality Moore saw affecting her group.
“Cambodian Grrrl came together really organically and quickly and it was really kind of beloved,” she says of readers’ response. “I’ve written a lot of things that people have really, really liked but something about Cambodian Grrrl – people were kind of maniacal about it. I think there are a couple of reasons for that in that book ...I was only sharing the best parts of a very emotional experience and I felt at some point like it wasn’t providing a full picture - right?”
When she broached the topic of the Chbap Srey, she was told variously that the book, a strict code on female behaviour written in the mid 1800s and once a part of the school curriculum – was a non-event as far as modern young Cambodian women concerned. When she tried to locate a copy, however, nearly everyone in her group had one.
It was an oppressive set of rules [Moore writes in her introduction to New Girl Law]but it was familiar. The only way I have found to explain the pressure to adhere to the rules of the Chbap Srei to American women and girls is by asking them this: What if advertising in the U.S. carried the weight of law?
The new book is written for a Western audience, Moore says, but the work is a collaboration, with the story driven by the exploratory twists and turns of the conversation carried out between the women (whose identity Moore protects with name changes).
“The young people I was working with in the first place suggested it and they got really excited about the tools and the ideas we were talking about and the ways that they could think about making them useful for their own purposes. So when we started thinking through ways of repositioning the ideas of the Chbap Srey - that (idea) came from them, totally.”
When the participants agreed that patience was indeed a virtue, Moore took a step back:
“I’m doing something completely different. I’m literally out of my comfort zone – and I’m not guiding this anymore.”
One by one, human ideals – of rights, freedom and of perfect solutions to everyday problems - were mulled over by the students. While the time-old tradition of theChbap Srey hovered, spectre-like in the background, new ‘laws’ emerged that managed to fit both what the group wanted to have and what they wanted to say to society.
Don’t speak in the way that you consider [your husband] as equal, says the original Chbap Srey.
No matter what happen we have to wait to listen [to] the bad word (even if he say something bad you have to listen.)
To this the ‘new girl laws’ state: Girls should be brave enough to make eye contact with and speak to boys.
Girls should also be allowed to chose their own marriage partner [in consultation with their parents], have access to free menstrual protection and learn to protect themselves, to name a few. The ‘laws’ then widen into broader human rights concerns.
With much of the characters’ speaking in imperfect, broken English, which often makes what they’re saying as naively profound – was Moore worried about things being lost in translation?
“Worry me? Oh totally,” she says. “That’s part of the struggle, is that if you’re doing a project with such defined parameters...then you are always doing something that is extremely limited in application and scope.
“In 2007-8 there was a lot of concern about doing things like this in Khmer. And maybe that’s changed now, but my sense is that maybe it also hasn’t. That English was going to be a way of limiting the impact in a way that allowed the girls, even though they may not have had the language skills, that allowed them to feel more comfortable saying [things]... having a certain distance from the language that they grew up speaking.”
Since leaving Cambodia, Moore has been happy to see some of her group continue on with their zine-making. She published another Cambodia-themed art book – Hip Hop Apsara – last year but New Girl Law came up against som obstacles getting publicised and distributed in the US, [“talk about modes of censorship, it’s really controlling and weird,” she says] Four years after the fact, is being released in the US. The challenge of waiting tested her patience.
“ I’ve completely adopted that into some of the ways I do work in the world. But I think for me it’s more a tool to be used sometimes than a guiding principle.”
New Girl Law: drafting a future for Cambodia will be released March 31 by independent press Cantankerous Titles in the US and is available online.