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Heroic Cham women used emotional power to help save their people

Heroic Cham women used emotional power to help save their people

Researcher and author So Farina.

Before you were killed, they asked if you were Cham or Khmer, and if you said Cham you would be sent to
be killed. This kind of punishment really traumatised the people

Researcher  identifies a special quality of feminine resistance to Khmer Rouge brutality

A particular female quality of motherly assertion against bad behaviour made a big difference in saving Cham lives during the Khmer Rouge period, according to Cham researcher and author So Farina.

Citing Yale University professor James C. Scott’s Weapon of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, So Farina says: “Women do not have so much physical strength, but they do have emotional strength as a weapon to defend themselves and their families.

“I use another theory called hidden struggle.

“The Cham women did not resist the Khmer Rouge physically, but rather emotionally: they would pray, they would hide, and they would keep their identity.”

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

She estimates that somewhere between 400,000 and half a million Cham people died during the Khmer Rouge regime, but that since then numbers have returned to approximately the 700,000 Cham people who lived in Cambodia prior to 1975.

“Scholars try to argue about the numbers because we don’t know,” she says.

(Other scholars put the numbers much lower: a population of 500,000 and total killed about 125,000.) So Farina documents the oral history of what happ-ened to the Cham people, especially women, during
the Pol Pot regime. In addition to her writing, she serves as team leader for the Cham Muslim Oral History project at the Documentation Centre.

The findings from her book indicate the Cham were treated equally at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge period but when asked for their identity by Khmer Rouge officials, had to decide whether to lie and pretend to be Buddhist Khmer or tell the truth and face extermination.

“Cham women adapted in order to survive, but also resisted verbally and emot-ionally,” So Farina says.

One of the more unacceptable Khmer Rouge policies was separating mothers from their children something Cham women particularly resisted.

“Most women I interviewed tried every way to stay with their children longer; for example, they used their communication, by saying: 'Please allow me to stay and look after my baby.' ”

The Cham women also confronted Khmer Rouge soldiers verbally to get more food, even though they knew they faced death – because they knew their children’s survival depended on some more food,
So Farina says.

“My book is about the oral history of Cham women in the Khmer Rouge time.  It investigates Khmer Rouge policies on women and on the community."

So Farina was born in Phnom Penh in 1980.  

Her father had been a Buddhist but converted to Islam when he married her mother in 1978.

“My parents were evacuated to Kratie province, in northeast Cambodia, where they suffered like other people," she says.

"The Khmer Rouge made my mother cut her hair. But because of her skill and patience, being humble and helping everybody, she survived.”

With her own mother as one of her primary sources of inspiration, So Farina interviewed about 100 Cham women across Cambodia who had similar stories.

“The Khmer Rouge arrested the Muslim leaders; they wanted to eliminate all the scholars,” she says.

So Farina cites the Cham uprisings in Koh Phal and Svay Khleang in late 1975, during the Islamic fast of Ramadan, which she thinks were heroic but also terribly tragic, because the uprisings caused a shift in Khmer Rouge policy towards the Cham _ to extermination.

“In the uprisings, the Cham used only knives and swords, so they couldn't win.

"The Khmer Rouge bombed the village, arrested the rebels and killed them, then the men and women were separ-ated and were evacuated to different places. A lot of them died from disease.

"The Khmer Rouge made life much harder for those Cham who came from the places where there had been uprisings."

Cham women were also raped during the evacuation of the villages.

By late 1977, it was evident that the Khmer Rouge wanted to kill off all Cham in the rebellious villages.

“Before you were killed, they asked if you were Cham or Khmer, and if you said Cham you would be sent to be killed. This kind of punishment really traumatised the people,” So Farina says.

According to her research, Cham people lied in order to survive.

“The people who lied survived.  This happened to the people in the last queue:  if you said you were Cham, you were separated to the other side; you knew if you didn’t lie, you would be killed.  The people who lied survived.”

Describing the differences between the religious practices of orthodox Cham and traditional Cham, So Farina says the traditionalists are in the minority.

She herself practices orthodox Islam, and feels no need to convert, or coerce, the trad-itionalists toward Islamic orthodoxy.

“How they practise their rel-igion is up to them,” she says.  “They are the remnants of the Champa Kingdom here.”

Among the Cham people, both orthodox and tradition-alists have their own leading holy men, one for each tradit-ion, called mufti.

“We respect the differences, no matter what, no matter if they are full Muslim or half Muslim, we respect their right to practise their culture and tradition.”

So Farina says some tradit-ionalist members convert to orthodoxy, but others don’t.

“What they want to follow is up to them. When we talk about faith, we cannot talk about enforcement.”

She says there are about 35,000 traditional Cham in Battambang, Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Kampot, and the numbers of Cham people who follow orthodoxy are much more numerous.

“We tend to be progressive Muslims, not static, and we also need to understand glob-alism, internationalism.
"We need to understand how modern society works, in order to behave ourselves, while mentioning our principles as Muslim people.

“When we learn the word of God and the principles of human rights; when we learn respect for those kinds of things that are also in the Koran, we combine all these things and put them into practice for ourselves and others so we may feel peaceful in our behaviour based on these principles and secular principles like human rights and democracy. We are good Muslims and good citizens.

“We cannot control our hearts, but we also try to remain true to our principles.

"We also understand what has happened in the past, so we need to think about what happened in order to avoid conflict in the future.”

The main differences between Cham Muslim orthodoxy and traditionalism:

Observe the five pillars of the Islamic faith: there is only one God; pray five times a day, give charity to the poor; observe the fast of Ramadan; and go to Hajj once in your lifetime.

Pray only on Friday; a different style of fasting on Ramadan (sometimes including hiring people to fast for you); women don’t need to fast or pray; not obligatory to wear a scarf; still believe in spirits; more emphasis on ancestors than on God; different birth and death ceremonies.


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