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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Meet the new urban woman

Meet the new urban woman

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Chi Kim Ten, who works in the market in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province, says the women's code Chbap Srei is important to educate daughters to respect culture and respect their husbands.

A new kind of woman is emerging in Phnom Penh. "Right now, who can stop us?" said Seng Sophea, 25. "We have mobile phones, the Internet, email - everything is so much more modern now... In the past, parents wouldn't allow girls to go out after dark. But now, girls go out until eight, because they have to study English."

Sophea has a master's degree in Khmer Literature from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She works three jobs, speaks fluent English, and is unique among her sisters in that she does not have an arranged marriage, having persuaded her parents to let her marry the man she fell in love with at university.

The past five years have seen increasing numbers of women entering schools, universities and the skilled workforce. They are surrounded by television, music videos and Western fashion, and are increasingly connected to the modern world.

The government is making women's issues a priority, according to the Minister for Women's Affairs, Ing Kantha Phavi, on her return from addressing a panel evaluating Cambodia's adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

"We have just implemented five years of gender policy, and are working solidly to promote women's status in Cambodian society, in policy, law and legislation," she said. "We still have loopholes - but we recognize our weaknesses and are trying to improve them."

Such progress, in particular last year's domestic violence law, has been heralded as a great leap forward for Cambodian women.

Yet women like Sophea are a tiny minority, and their lifestyles are only possible in Phnom Penh. Rural attitudes are years behind those in the capital. Observers say the passing of legislation is only the first step in what will be a long, arduous process of changing deep-seated attitudes about gender relations.

Chbap Srei

The UN committee drew attention to women's lack of knowledge regarding their rights, and particularly to the widening disparity between rural and urban women. According to Kantha Phavi, many Khmer men - and women - do not believe beating one's wife is a crime.

These attitudes are perpetuated in Cambodian society by traditional mechanisms such as the Women's Code of Conduct, or Chbap Srei.

The code is a rhyming poem instructing women how to behave in their marriage, within their family, and in the community. It is still a part of the school curriculum, and in areas of low literacy, mothers teach their daughters to recite the poem by heart.

The code includes such instructions as "If you are not afraid of your husband, conflict will ensue, your reputation will suffer, and cause disruption." If a husband becomes angry with his wife, she should "retire for the night and think about the situation, then speak softly to him and forgive him." If a man takes a mistress, she must calmly "allow him to wander where he wants, and he will return to her." Under the code, women are supposed to stay at home, and always behave quietly and sweetly.

According to Sophea, however, such stipulations seriously inhibit a woman's ability to be independent.

"If you follow Chbap Srei to the letter, you will never get a job, you will never see what society is like," she said. Sophea admits she still fulfills the traditional roles of the Cambodian woman, but she doesn't need to follow the code to be a good wife. "I am responsible for the household - I cook, I clean," she said. "You know what to do, without letting Chbap Srei rule your life."

But Sophea is the first to admit she is quite different from most Cambodian girls.

Rural areas

For the majority of women, especially in rural areas, life is vastly different, and Chbap Srei is an ever-present prism through which they perceive the world.

"Chbap Srei is important to educate our daughters to respect our culture, and respect their husbands," said Chi Kim Ten, 53, of Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province. Sitting on a tiny plastic stool in the market, she is wrapped up to ward off the Mondulkiri morning chill, her gloved fingers sorting through a basket of dust-covered odds and ends.

"It is very important that the wife respect the husband, because when we make a family we want happiness within the family," she said.

However, some rules are not so important, she said, such as the one encouraging women to stay at home. Without her stall in the market, her family would find it much harder to survive. In general though, she doesn't see the rules as oppressive. "Most women want to respect Chbap Srei," she said.

Younger rural women, too, agree on the importance of the code. Sopha comes from Kampong Cham province. She is 25, and was married last month.

"I think about Chbap Srei all the time," she said. "It is very important; it is old, but good."

She does agree that some elements of the code are old-fashioned, and says, laughing, that no one takes any notice of the rules advising women to "walk gently on the floor, talk sweetly, and laugh softly."

Some rules are still important though, she said. "When a couple have an argument, the woman can't tell her sister or her friend; because if people find out it will look bad for the family, and it will make her husband angry, and they will argue more. Most women still keep that rule."

New tradition

The Chbap Srei is widely invoked as an ancient Cambodian tradition, an integral part of what it has meant to be a Cambodian woman since way back in the mist-shrouded Angkorean past. Yet the values enshrined in these codes are not necessarily those of traditional Khmer society, argues Australian academic Trudy Jacobsen in her book Lost Goddesses: Female Power and its Denial in Cambodian History, due for publication this year. Rather, they are the relatively recent, elite-specific creation of a misogynist 19th-century king.

The version taught in schools is based on a text penned by King Ang Duong, who ruled Cambodia from 1848 to 1860. According to Jacobsen, the Chbap Srei were an idealized set of rules describing how elite society should operate, not how it actually did. However, by the early 20th century, Ang Duong's reign was seen as something of a golden age, when the country was free of colonial subjugation by French, Thai or Vietnamese occupiers. Literature from that period, including the Chbap Srei, was republished, and seen as reflecting uniquely Cambodian social mores.

The French, in an attempt to preserve Khmer literature, then incorporated the Chbap Srei into the school curriculum, but it was not accompanied by instruction in critical thinking, which clashed with the Buddhist notion of unquestioning acceptance of one's dharma, said Jacobsen, and could have engendered resistance to French rule. So instead of being analyzed as an example of 19th-century literature, the Chbap Srei and its male counterpart, the Chbap Pros, became something every educated boy and girl learned to memorize.

Even now, while most people who have been to school can recite passages from the Chbap Srei, few can tell you much about Chbap Pros. This kind of double standard is unsurprising, says Jacobsen, because women are always made the repositories of traditional culture. "Women are the ones wearing traditional costumes, and who are expected to retain knowledge of traditional dances, while the men wear western business suits."

Schooling

These days, however, schools emphasize analysis of both the men's and women's codes, says Sokhoeurn Savady, Deputy Director of the Law Department at the Ministry of Women's Affairs. In grade six of high school, young people are now taught to distinguish between the good values the codes advocate - such as courtesy, or respect for parents and the elderly - and those that are out of date.

For Savady, the core problem is that there are still many parts of the country where children, especially girls, do not make it past primary school. In many cases, a family can afford to send just one of their children to school; almost invariably, it is one of the boys.

Women are still far less educated than men, according to the recently released World Bank Poverty Assessment; 42 percent of women over 25 have had no schooling, compared with 20 percent of men.

Consequently, in the absence of formal education, women learn the code by rote from their mothers, and may receive no indication that many of its stipulations are unfair.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs is working closely with the Ministry of Education towards increasing female enrollment in primary and secondary education, Savady says.

For Sophea and others like her, the developments of the past few years have made it easier to be a woman in Cambodia. The gap between male and female literacy levels is closing, according to the World Bank report.

But many believe that until its hold on rural Cambodia can be loosened, the Chbap Srei will continue to be a barrier to the full implementation of the domestic violence law, and other vital legislation which seeks to give Cambodian women the freedom and security enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, and husbands.

On her return from Washington, Kantha Phavi agreed the government needed to take a serious look at Chbap Srei.

"The Women's Code of Conduct is an obstacle to development for women," she said.

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