As Cambodia undergoes rapid cultural change, some young women are testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable clothing more than others – with consequences ranging from online abuse to public ‘education’ (some say ‘intimidation’) from the government.
At only 19 years old, Min Jany is already a minor Cambodian celebrity. She has several thousand Instagram followers, a successful beauty-products business and a natural ease on camera. She appears in Davy Chou’s latest film, Diamond Island, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival last month.
But when a photo from the movie set appeared on Facebook in December – showing Jany in a pair of denim cutoffs on the back of her co-star’s motorbike – a “friend” on the social network took offence, and began to harass her online.
“He was saying: ‘Why is she dressing up like that? I can see her ass,’” she recalled this week. “He was asking why a Khmer girl was trying to dress up like a European girl. Does he really want me to [only] wear traditional clothes to go out there?”
“Out there” – in public – Jany wears what she wants, and sometimes pushes boundaries with her outfits. She’s asked her parents, traditional tailors, to sew her own more revealing versions of traditional designs. (They balked.)
She also bares some skin on Instagram – which she deems a safer space than Facebook. Jany’s public feed showcases a closet stocked with crop tops, short shorts and Calvin Kleins. “Sometimes I wear a bikini and post it on Instagram – the rest of the world can accept that, but not Cambodia,” she explained. “On social media, I usually get support.”
But occasionally, there are men like the commenter – neighbours or anonymous onlookers. When Jany dyed her hair blonde for another movie, one critic labelled her a “taxi girl”.
Jany is far from the first young woman to face such public criticism in Cambodia. Sometimes, it comes from higher up. Two weeks ago, music-video actress Denny Kwan, 23, was summoned to the offices of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts after photos of her wearing a barely there dress appeared in local media. (Kwan did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
“The ministry called her in to educate her,” Ministry Secretary of State Thai Norak Satya explained this week. “Khmer culture is about modesty. . . it is not affected because of one or two women wearing sexy dress. But if someone inflates or exaggerates [her dress], it will become a big problem.” Satya was quick to add that the ministry could not force anyone to dress conservatively, merely advise.
The ministry’s position reflects a lasting conservatism in Cambodia – especially when it comes to a woman’s appearance. It also hints at a contradiction, where an individual is singled out and schooled on her looks against the backdrop of a city peppered with KTVs. Controversial US establishment Hooters – known for its scantily dressed waiters – is due to open in mid-September, but it hasn’t ruffled any ministerial feathers.
This conservatism is reflected by the chbab srey (rules for girls), which is still informally taught in some schools. It focuses on women’s behaviours, including three related to skirts: showing legs to attract men is deemed shameful. “[In the chbab srey], beauty is defined by the husband, not by the person,” explained Kasumi Nakagawa, a professor of gender studies at Pannasastra University.
At the centre of the code – in contrast with the boys’ version – is deference. It’s a characteristic young women like Jany seem to be bucking. “I do not care what people think about me, I dress for myself,” she said this week.
But even in conversation with Jany and other young women, a conservative undercurrent remained apparent. Most admitted there were definite “limits” to the way women dress – pagoda visits, for example – and reserved plenty of room for their own judgments.
“[Denny] is a star; she should be a role model. I think she’s too much. I say, know your limits,” Jany said.
Some say that state intervention in the matter takes it from an issue of public taste into the realm of policing women’s bodies.
In the eyes of Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia, the ministry’s “advice” is loaded. “This is ridiculous,” she said this week. “If the men at the Ministry of Culture . . . [call] the young woman, [question] her and make her feel uncomfortable, this is a kind of intimidation.”
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said that such “social policing” was a form of gender discrimination. “To say that women in the entertainment sector must behave according to culture is not the role of the state,” she said. “A woman’s body is her own image, her integrity and her own decision. Pure and simple.”
Sopheap pointed out that the ministry’s step did not even align with the government’s own gender-equality policy. “Men have never had this treatment,” she said.
Likewise, Cambodian women face a double standard that now plays out online: They are expected to appear demure and be shamed if they choose to dress “sexily”. But women seeking to be taken seriously – especially in the political realm – have their feminine forms subverted to be used against them.
Self-produced images of women in less-than-traditional dress appear frequently aside political commentary on Facebook. Local news sites in particular will often re-publish such photos in an attempt to demean them, while still reproducing the “inappropriate” photo, as with Denny’s case.
Often, women lose complete control of their image. In recent weeks, political activist Thy Sovantha, who has brought a defamation suit against acting CNRP president Kem Sokha, has faced pregnancy rumours and harassment on social media. One image of Sovantha – photoshopped to make her appear topless – was shared 2,000 times on Facebook.
Mu Sochua has experienced repeated gendered barbs. She famously sued Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2009, alleging that he called her cheung klang (“strong leg”) – an offensive term with connotations of prostitution. She said this week that her own head and body had been photoshopped in lieu of articulate critique.
And few are off limits. In January, a photo of first lady Bun Rany – who in the past has blamed so-called “pornographic” images of women for rape and bad morals – was edited to depict her in an offensive stance.
But most often, it’s ordinary young women who suffer the double-edged sword. At the age of 19, the strong-willed Jany has moved past it.
“It’s up to the girl,” she said this week in her bedroom. “I used to sit in front of the mirror, trying not to look like me. Why do I let their thought change mine?”
San Sothea, 26
All stars and celebrities should be careful with the way they dress, because they are public figures. We know this is 2016, and people always want to adapt, but they have to limit their styles. I don’t mean Cambodian people need to wear traditional clothes to go to the mall, but they have to understand about Khmer culture because they were born under Khmer culture. Cambodian women should respect the culture and dress modestly.
Keo Chenda, 42
Denny Kwan’s clothes aren’t good – it is too sexy for people’s eyes. But I like the way she helps people. I have young children, and I want to see them wearing acceptable clothes depending on the circumstance. When we celebrate a traditional event, they have to wear traditional clothes. But if they go for a walk or a party, they can wear whatever they want. Since we live in a country with this sort of culture, we have to respect it.
Chheun Dalin, 19
Denny Kwan is a star and she has the freedom to dress herself, but it can affect young people. When she dresses too sexy, young people might confuse the message and follow her steps: to wear clothes that do not represent Cambodian society. It’s acceptable for young people to wear what they want, but not to cultural events. I want to see Cambodian women wear skirts.
Hok Sereyvatanak, 23
Denny Kwan [dresses] too sexy, and it could harm the Cambodian culture. We cannot say that people have to wear this and that forever, but it depends on the circumstance. If it’s a cultural event, they need to wear traditional clothes. If they wear shorts on top, they should wear something long on the bottom – there needs to be a balance. People don’t judge men on clothes, but women are more often targets.
Thou Socheata, 25
I am not interested in celebrities, or what they wear. I never wear shorts and I always cover my skin. We wear Western or other designs, but we have to think of our culture before we show ourselves to the public – it’s fine to wear shorts at home. I don’t want to see too much skin. It’s fine for people to wear Western clothes when they know how to limit their dress.
Additional reporting by Pech Sotheary.