believe the health of our nation hinges on the liberation of our female population.
We, Khmers, cannot expect social progress and economic development to occur in a
vacuum, without the empowerment of our sisters, daughters, and wives. This will require
us to alter our thinking regarding what it means to be an 'ideal Khmer woman', neary
kroup lak, as outlined by the Women's Code of Conduct or Chbap Srei. She need not
be the deferential, submissive, homely, soft-spoken, well-mannered, long-haired,
almond-eyed Asian mannequin of society.
Instead, let her breathe air after 6 PM; let her be educated; let her speak her mind;
let her explore; let her skin and scrape her knees a little.
Tradition and customs protect her from vices and being misunderstood, people explain.
But I believe we hold on tightly to these customs and forms, partly, to counter the
rising social ills of prostitution-to prove to ourselves and others that we Khmer
pride ourselves on values and decorum. This holds true for men in particular, who
proclaim their commitment to these values as a way of absolving themselves of their
We may excoriate the debased foreigners who come to our country to exploit the very
fragile legal, enforcement infrastructure and the young girls, but we have to face
the fact that the majority of the clients in the red light districts are actually
our Khmer men.
Immorality and amorality
A while back I helped with a translation of a film on prostitution in Cambodia. In
an interview with a 'john', I was struck by the glibness and lackadaisical attitude
of this moto-taxi driver, who visited prostitutes on a regular basis because he wanted
to try how a 'fat' one differs from a 'skinny' one, or how a 'white' one differs
from his wife. Moreover, he could do things to prostitutes he could not do to his
Besides repulsion, I was struck by a devastating thought: he lives in a society that
is slipping beyond immorality into amorality. With immorality, at least his conscience
pricks him to tell him his acts are wrong. But with amorality, a person is so de-sensitized
that he does not care.
Where is love amidst this cruel bond? Where is romance and intimacy amidst this vile
union? How can something so beautiful be so degraded? But sadly, as is often the
case, the greater the beauty the greater is the perversion.
How is it that lust has replaced love, what is permissible preferred over the best?
Has he not ever experienced that exquisite union of souls where the acute swelling
of heart and tightening of muscles have nothing to do with carnal knowledge but everything
to do with the best of the beloved? Where the knees give way, the chest pounds, and
the throat dries up when we catch glimpses of the ethereal beauty of the adored?
Legacy of UNTAC
Under its rule, the Khmer Rouge can be credited with abolishing 'the oldest profession'
in our country. This condition remained so until the presence of the United Nations
in 1992. The invasion of 26,000 UN blue berets-young men culled from all over the
world, paid with generous UN salaries-created a demand that was quickly supplied
by the poverty-stricken female population (many trucked in from Vietnam, commerce
transacted by local officials) in satisfying the libidos of these men. The United
Nations paid these peacekeepers several thousand dollars per month in a country on
the verge of extinction whose population lived on almost nothing.
The UN peacekeepers have been long gone, but the trade of selling bodies and souls
continue. In certain situations, the girls sacrifice their bodies for the survival
of their family. In other cases, the parents sell their daughters as part of the
human cargo and trafficking that make for common occurrences that do not even raise
an eyebrow anymore.
This social ill inflicts fatal wounds on all levels of our Khmer society, and its
worst twists spiral down from the highest echelons of power.
Beauty and power
Beauty is attracted to power, power to beauty. A most despicable cycle of violence
has been spiraling in our present-day society whereby the first wives of prominent
men hunt down much younger second wives or mistresses of their philandering husbands.
Time and again, we read the same storyline, with only the names changed: vengeful
wives, armed with an entourage of bodyguards, attacking the girls with skin-eating
acid thrown onto faces and bodies. The intent is not to kill so much as to deform.
In a culture of impunity, these perpetrators have yet to face justice.
There is no winner in this situation. Everyone is to blame; everyone is a victim;
everyone is a perpetrator. The issue is not one of justification for the younger
women-sometimes a refusal can turn dangerous-but of proportionality and just deserts.
And the cruelty of it all-women are pitted against women, encouraged and circumscribed
by a cultural, social and economic construct where the sexual degradation of one
is to preserve the twisted ideal of another!
Economics of sex
The problem raises the larger issue of how we are to live, whether we want to live
in a society where "love" is purely an economic equation and is up for
sale; whether we want to live in a society where our daughters and sisters can aspire
to nothing greater than the wife or commodity of a wealthy man, of an Okhna, of a
white man, of a minister. Have we resigned ourselves to accepting the union of a
beautiful 16-year old girl with a scraggly 60-year old man as normal? Is it ageism
or an issue of power and choice? If we believe love is the foundation of such a union,
I don't think we would be so uneasy (or queasy!), but rather rejoice with this most
fortunate of a man! Do we as a society not feel the onus and responsibility for creating
more opportunities and empowering our women or are we so ready to disown the many
living in sexual slavery because we are free from it? Are we not concerned for the
larger implication of what it means for us as a people, as a nation?
Or can we carelessly dismiss this as fate and neatly absolve the problem with a simple
classification of neary kroup lak or "good" girls versus "bad"
girls. If we are to pause and deeply assess the present-day status of Khmer women,
our values and actions, is this categorization even meaningful? Many times, is not
the line of respectability a bit blurred and skewered and based more on economics
and social status rather than morality or ethics? Does not our current society quietly
admire or envy a beautifully kept woman with a man of means, but treat with contempt
and discard the pretty farm girl who has been trafficked into the sex trade for pennies?
Neary kroup lak reassessed
The Chbap Srei and the concept of the neary kroup lak must be reassessed in light
of the realities of current society of 2007 (and not 1907) and where our society
is heading. We can pretend to exist in a society of 100 years ago and to close our
eyes to the changes around us, or we can face straight on the changes-often times
unsettling and seemingly uncontrollable-and try to shape them. Change is never easy,
especially when our identity, honor and worth are at stake. But rather than retreat
and be defensive or act like an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand refusing
to believe the obvious, we can, we should, we must take control of our destiny and
impact it rather than living passively to be impacted upon.
If we are at all concerned about the state of affairs, we, Khmer women, need to be
empowered through education and the exercising of our Constitutional and inherent
rights; our Khmer men need to be educated concerning their own dignity and worth
and the value and freedom of their Khmer women. It reflects our inadequacy and self-loathing
when we feel we need to demean and one-up another; we must fight against this tendency
to devalue each other as Khmer.
It also reflects our imbalance when we kow-tow to anything foreign or display passive-aggressive
attitudes to them when we feel slighted; we must take care not to praise disproportionately
or misplace our criticism of foreigners, for no one can give us or take away our
inherent values, as no one can look down on us-without our consent.
And we are consenting when we mistreat each other, particularly our own women; we
are consenting when we close our eyes to the misery of the vulnerable, of the fatherless,
of the elderly, of the landless, of the disabled, of the needy; we are consenting
when we abuse the rights of our own people and create conditions where they are forced
to beg for the most basic of necessities.
We both need to understand that in destroying the souls of our wives, daughters and
sisters, we are destroying our own souls; we are consenting.
We of both sexes must be braver to withstand the social stigmas and temptations and
value each other. If we are at all serious and concerned for the welfare of our society,
there is no other way. We must translate lip service into active service of care,
compassion and individual transformation.
Presumption against Khmer women
To be human is to desire. But there are times, when our heart's desire has to be
subordinated and sacrificed for a larger good. Even as our heart is being ripped
out of us, we know there are limits to our desires. Why is it that we so often do
what we know we ought not to do, and so often love or desire someone whom we would
be better advised to walk away from?
The problems have reached such an apex that presumptions against us Khmer women are
growing. And these presumptions are impeding our progress. They shackle our mobility
and freedom, for these presumptions mistakenly inform Khmer women what is and is
not permissible to do or not do, to be or not be. They are nefarious because our
opportunities are limited by someone's misperceptions, our choices dictated by a
social construct that makes our interaction with men, particularly of power, suspect.
Consequently, we Khmers should not be too surprised when outsiders view us with weariness
or disdain, or when they exploit this presumption to their advantage. By not highly
valuing ourselves or each other, and by not responding appropriately when others
degrade or slight us, no matter how wrong their statement or action, we reinforce
these presumptions. Let others take responsibility for their own wrongs, and let
each of us expend our energy reflecting on our own life, and how we can do better.
And for those of us Khmers who have acquired education, power or wealth, let me say:
do not think we are free from indignities heaped on us by foreigners because of the
strand(s) of diamonds around our neck, or the perfect American accent we have cultivated,
or the Gucci bag we carry, or the shiny Mercedes we drive, or the foreign degree(s)
we have accumulated, or through any other means by which we believe can distance
us from "the masses" and poverty's ugliness-unless we want to altogether
disown our Khmer identity. We are only fooling ourselves if we believe we have gained
respectability through any of these things while still misusing and abusing ourselves
and our women.
Long ago a non-Khmer man of immense wealth and authority responded to my refusal
of his propositioning with a contemptuous "Cambodians are a dime a dozen."
I wanted so badly to direct him where he should go in the same manner we Khmers might
use a finger to indicate where the sky is!
In the expatriate community of humanitarian workers, diplomats, businessmen (cleverly
and accurately dubbed the 'lords of poverty' by one author), the presumption against
us Khmer women can unfold either in explicit arrogance or subtle sophisticated undercutting.
I have encountered personally, on countless occasions throughout the years, the mixture
of the two. In one particular situation, my forcing of an issue to expose the fraud
of a foreign lawyer posed too great a risk to make it to print: the expatriate community
was experiencing a backlash of anti-foreigner sentiments coupled with the possibility
that I was just a disgruntled employee. Also, concerns were raised about the innocent
local staff whose livelihood depended on the continued existence of the institution.
Later on, it was spun that I was the scorned lover of the foreign lawyer.
Of course... what else can I, a Khmer woman, possibly be?!
It will take years to chip away at this presumption made by us toward each other
and by foreigners alike. We need to return to the principle of first things. Genuine
Love. For ourselves. And for each other.
Theary C. SENG
To read past columns, please visit www.csdcambodia.org "Voice of Justice Program".