While women are often the leaders of their families and make up the majority of teachers in Cambodia, there is an obvious lack of women in prominent positions in politics and business. A few women, such as Deputy Prime Minister Mem Sam An, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua and Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Thak Pavi have established themselves in positions of power, but the voices of women in Cambodian society today often go unheard.
You might assume that this has always been the case in the Kingdom, but if we look more closely at some of the great women from Cambodia’s past, the value of women throughout Cambodia’s history is rather surprising.
King Jayavarman VII, who ruled during the height of Cambodia’s Angkorean empire, is well known by just about every Cambodian, but there was a great female leader long before Jayavarman was even born. The first leader during the Funan era, which began around 613 AD, was a woman named Leavyi or Soma. During her leadership, national unity was strong and the strength of her dynasty was known around Asia.
Soma was not only a good leader but also a brave military chief, who led her soldiers into battle against enemies who wanted to invade her people’s land. She led her military into battles against Hun Tean’s soldiers from India, said Sombo Manara, Khmer history lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
He said that apart from her fearlessness on the battlefield, Soma had many other virtues. She took great care of her people’s culture. When she married Hun Tean, an Indian, following his military defeat, she insisted that Khmer culture remain the dominant way of life and refused to allow the culture of her husband to take over. In India, women were considered to be inferior to men, while in Funan, women were considered to be superior to men. After marrying Soma, Hun Tean helped build Cambodia’s trade relations and administrative capacity but had no power in changing the country’s culture.
Her marriage to Hun Tean in itself showed the level to which Soma was willing to sacrifice herself for her country. She made a friend out of a foe and ensured that the one-time enemy India would no longer pose a threat to Cambodia. Many people helped build the Funan civilisation, but Cambodia may have never made it to where it is now if it weren’t for Soma.
Even during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, women played a vital role in the development of Cambodian civilisation. His wife, Queen Indradevi, devoted herself to making a positive impact on the civilisation that she and her husband ruled over.
According to Iv Chan, the director of national language at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, Indradevi played a key role in educating women and leading them to do many good tasks such as preserving and building temples and raising social morale. “Besides these tasks, she tried to develop her ability to become a good model to other women by working to become a university rector, scholar and teacher,” he said.
Also, Queen Indradevi was skilled at managing the government while her husband was away at war. She was able to bring together officials to implement policy and achieve tasks that were necessary to the success of the Angkor dynasty, said Iv Chan.
“In the past, women were valued and respected highly because people realized that women were the source of producing human beings and the symbol of a pure heart and sympathy,” he explained.
But from one generation to the next, the value of Khmer women seems to have faded little by little. Iv Chan suggested that this trend is due to a rise in the value given to power and strength to solve the problems of the country.
Sombo Manara said that this trend occurred when wars broke out and women were not involved in the battles because they were seen as being physically weaker than men. Although women have lost much of their power in the decision making of the culture, it is in their hands to change the way women are seen in the country.
“All in all, to raise the value of Khmer women, women have to study hard to strengthen their abilities,” recommended Iv Chan.
Similarly, to promote this value, Sambo Manara suggested that women and men have to learn how to understand and compromise with each other, and women themselves have to study hard to show their talents and achievements to Cambodia and the world.