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‘Morals’ on Culture Ministry’s mind

Singer Denny Kwan at the Ministry of Culture being ‘educated’ about her clothes. Photo supplied
Singer Denny Kwan at the Ministry of Culture being ‘educated’ about her clothes. Photo supplied

‘Morals’ on Culture Ministry’s mind

Cambodia's Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is updating its “code of ethics” to promote “moral behaviour, virtue and dignity” among the country’s artists and celebrities, though observers yesterday suggested the move seemed to be unfairly targeting female performers.

On Monday, Minister of Culture Phuong Sakonga called a ministerial meeting to begin drafting a new amendment to its existing “code of ethics”, which the ministry said is necessary to “build consensus” among artists and writers about what is appropriate to wear or include in their works.

“We want to amend the existing code for professional artists so that their work and songs aren’t criticised too much by the public,” ministry spokesman Thai Norak Satya said yesterday.

The meeting was called in response to public complaints that many female artists dress too provocatively and that their songs contain no educational value, Norak Satya said, pointing to a song by the young female artist Niroth that mentions eating bananas.

“Eat bananas and drink water – what does this mean?” he asked rhetorically. “We all know which female artists used to have problems with dressing. The public came out first with criticisms, and who should we follow if not the public?”

The ministry declined to outline details of the amendment, but said it is attempting to promote societal norms, not control what women wear.

But some experts argue that the government is attempting to police female artists and curtail expression in the name of strict gender norms.

In May, singer Denny Kwan was called into the ministry to be reprimanded for what was deemed her provocative clothing choices.

And while the ministry claims the new code will apply to all professional artists, many suspect it is being designed with female artists in mind.

“This seems to indirectly target exclusively women, and male artists may not be under any pressure or control or supervision of their attitudes and clothing,” said Kasumi Nakagawa, a professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University.

“This is contradictory to the Cambodian constitution or [the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women], which obliges Cambodia to bring substantive equality between women and men.”

Dary Dek, brand manager at Sabay Digital Corporation, which works with some of the Kingdom’s top talent, said the ministry needs to strike a delicate balance if they hope to affect public perceptions.

“There has been a great deal of influence from foreign cultures, which is found obscene by many local people,” she said.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s about balancing between what’s perceived as acceptable by the public and the effectiveness of the code’s implementation. If people can accept certain behaviour, strict codes will not be effective to stop it.”

But government involvement can be worrisome, experts say, especially when repressive gender norms are upheld in the name of culture.

“The problem comes when governments use preservation of cultural heritage as a vehicle to legitimise or justify gender inequalities,” said Rodrigo Montero Cano, gender adviser for GIZ Cambodia. “It is important to have in mind that societies are always changing.”

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