A popular ‘daughter-in-law’ class is teaching women the homemaking skills that would previously have been passed down by relatives
The greatest tragedy in the Cambodian literary canon could have been averted if only a young woman had heeded her parents’ pleas to stay inside and learn about virtuous behaviour.
In the old Khmer legend Tum Teav, the beautiful Teav is supposed to be observing Chol Mlop (In the Shade) – the time after a young woman gets her first period when she must cut off contact from the outside world and be taught about morality and womanhood by her female relatives.
Instead, Teav ventures out, falls in love with a monk and sets in place a series of events that result in her untimely death, as well as seven generations of the local governor’s relatives being buried neck deep in a field and having their heads lopped off with a plough.
There are other interpretations of this famous tale that apportion blame for the resulting bloodbath more evenly, but Lim Mouly Ratana likes this version the best. As the owner of The Daughter in Law House, she has spent the past 14 years trying to teach young and increasingly urbanised Khmer women the value of traditional skills and morality.
At her Street 432 school last week, the 36-year-old explained that the classes had originated as a home business – “something so that I could teach and take care of my new baby at the same time”. Today, The Daughter in Law House looks more like a TV studio set than a home. The large, brightly coloured classroom has work tables running down the centre and a fully stocked kitchen on one side. On another floor is a professional-grade salon where students can learn hair and make-up techniques, and a room fitted out to teach massage.
Chol Mlop is no longer practised in any but the most remote communities, and even there women are only confined for a week rather than several months. But Mouly Ratana said that pupil numbers at her urban “finishing school” had never been higher.
“Ninety per cent of students are from rich families,” explained Mouly Ratana, who has the polished presentation and confident mannerisms of a TV presenter. “They want to learn all skills but especially about morality because they know the value of Khmer tradition and culture.”
As the name suggests, it is often at the behest of older generations that students end up in Mouly Ratana’s classroom. “Some people don’t have talent, they come because of their parents and grandparents and we struggle hard to teach them,” she said.
But getting an education at The Daughter in Law School is not as dry and boring as the concept might suggest, with Wednesday’s class focusing solely on fruit and vegetable carving. Sitting around one of the work tables, Mouly Ratana helped her students etch intricate flower patterns and snatches of Khmer script into carrots, mangoes and ginger.
They didn’t need much assistance: fruit carving is one of the most popular classes at The Daughter in Law House, and all the students were repeat customers.
In fact, the majority of the topics that Mouly Ratana teaches are based on the decorative arts. Women learn how to make cakes, Khmer sweets and ice cream and to arrange flowers and fold paper and napkins into intricate patterns. She also teaches dance (both Khmer and international), cooking and salon skills.
“Some of my students who already got married come to learn with me without telling their husbands,” she said, smiling. “Then when they do these things around the house, their husbands are happy and surprised to see their wife’s work.”
Mouly Ratana explained that while moral virtuosity was the most important thing for students to learn, the woman’s position at the centre of the home meant that it was intrinsically linked to possessing a practical skill set.
“Some women are strong in their jobs but they have none of the skills for housework and this leads to unhappiness at home,” she said.
Money, she added, made matters worse. “They should not think that they can go out somewhere to eat food or something. They should know that happiness grows when you know how to do housework.”
The values that are taught explicitly at The Daughter in Law School are mainly limited to practical questions of etiquette, such as how to address different members of society. A handmade poster on the wall features cutouts of the five different sampeahs, illustrating how hand positions vary depending on the seniority of the person you’re greeting.
For students, the classes remain a fun afternoon out rather than a burden. “I love coming here every day to learn women’s skills,” said Kim Lin, an enthusiastic 17-year-old who chanced across The Daughter in Law School after moving from Koh Kong to work in Phnom Penh.
Lin, busy carving petals into a guava, said that fruit decoration was only one of a long list of skills she’d picked up at the school including makeup and cooking. “I can see the difference between me and the other students already,” she said with pride.
“When the teacher tells me how to do it, I can do it well.
“It’s important for me if I want to be a good daughter, and some day a good wife in a family.”