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.