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Remembering Ieng Thirith’s radical gender policy

Ieng Thirith attends a preliminary hearing on her fitness to stand trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2011.
Ieng Thirith attends a preliminary hearing on her fitness to stand trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2011. ECCC

Remembering Ieng Thirith’s radical gender policy

Ieng Thirith, the minister of social affairs during Democratic Kampuchea and an accused in Case 002 who was released due to her dementia, died on Saturday.

She died without facing legal justice, but we should not let it pass.

We should remember her tragic policies, especially her gender policy during her time as minister.

Ieng Thirith studied in France, returning to Cambodia in 1957 with her husband and other communist leaders.

She worked as a professor before she became minister of social affairs. Her husband, Ieng Sary, the accused in the same case, was the minister of foreign affairs.

He died in 2013. Ieng Thirith was one of a few top women leaders who were influential during the communist regime.

Other women in leadership included Khieu Ponnary, her sister and Pol Pot’s wife, who founded a women’s association and Yon Yat, Son Sen’s wife.

Family transformation was one of her radical policies in which she claimed to emancipate women from oppression.

This gender policy emphasised equality and self-reliance for both sexes.

Thirith echoed that women in her regime just came home from work and eat.

They did not need to cook or perform domestic chores.

As Elizabeth Becker wrote in When The War Was Over: Cambodia And The Khmer Rouge Revolution: “[B]efore the women had to work, to come home and search for the fish, the rice, to cook it, care for the children.

This was terrible. In communal living they only have to come home from work and eat.”

Thus, they didn’t have to entangle with their children and family.

Consequently, single women were separated from their parents; married women were separated from their husbands and children.

Maternity leave was very limited. This varied from one region to another.

The longest period for maternity leave was up to one month and the lowest was as short as one week to two weeks.

Worse, pregnant women received little medical care and nutrition and were still expected to carry considerable amount of work during their pregnancy or after delivery.

Equality in her definition lied in physical strength and revolutionary spirit not other qualities of femininity.

Women were forced to carry out the same type of work as men.

Their hard work and dedication did not earn them much credit or status at the middle and lower rank.

This does not mean women could not be killers or perpetrators during the era.

There were many female killers and perpetrators who were induced by gender policy and other Khmer Rouge policies.

The majority of women, however, suffered from malnutrition, lacked basic health care and were overworked, and many were executed.

Women’s health remained one of the main problems after the regime collapsed in 1979.

Despite these tragic moments, Ieng Thirith denied responsibility: “I don’t know why a good person is accused of such crimes and I have suffered a great deal, and I cannot really be patient because I have been wrongly accused.”

Thirith’s many victims, mainly female victims, have died without receiving any justice.

Remaining victims continue to remember Thirith’s policy that tore families apart and contributed to the death of nearly 2 million people.

Farina So is the author of The Hijab of Cambodia: Memories of Cham Muslim Women After the Khmer Rouge.

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