​The roots of female subordination in Cambodia

Cambodian constitution recognises equal rights between men and women. They can participate in all social, economic, and cultural activities without discrimination.

The Cambodian government has passed many pieces of legislation and policies to advance the status of women and eliminate discrimination against women. Nowadays, more Cambodian women are educated and are enjoying better opportunities than their parents and grandparents.

Nonetheless, it is still far away from an equal participation of women and men in Cambodian society. I even doubt that Cambodian women may be able to release themselves from men’s domination in spite of all these efforts to guarantee them the same rights and opportunities as men. I would like to argue instead that Cambodia’s hierarchical and patriarchal practices are so deeply rooted that any attempts to move Cambodia towards a gender-equal society will require significant and honest attention to how such practices perpetuate female subordination through family, religion, mass media and education.

Cambodia’s strong hierarchical and patriarchal family plays a significant part in promoting discrimination against women. The husband (father) is in charge of affairs both inside and outside of the family. He is the breadwinner, the head of the family, the decision maker of all family affairs. In the Cambodian family, the male child is preferred to the female child because of the belief that the son will become the family successor and can protect the female family members, especially sisters. Consequently, resources will be given to support men. Female members (wife, daughter), on the contrary, are placed in a secondary position to men. They have to listen to and depend on men.

The family follows the traditional and moral code of conduct (Chbab Srey- rules of the women) written as far back as 1848. Chbab Srey is a dominant social norm that governs the attitudes of Cambodian males and females. In Chab Srey, males are superior to females. Males are socialised, as I mentioned above, to view themselves as heads of households, breadwinners and decision makers. Females are explicitly assigned a lower status, prohibiting them from voicing opinions and advice. Females have to respect and obey their husbands and avoid embarrassing them. Females are taught to be gentle, passive, submissive and pleasing housekeepers. The quote below perfectly represents how Khmer women are taught to denigrate themselves in these traditional values strictly upheld in Cambodian families and society:

· Respect and fear the wishes of your husband.
· Never say anything negative to your parents about your husband.
· If your husband gives an order, don’t hesitate one moment
· Follow the commands of your husband like a slave.
· Avoid portraying yourself as equal to your husband, he who is your master.
· Better to remain silent than to argue and break apart.
· If your husband hits you and treats you like a thief or a prostitute, you must not dare to respond for fear of inciting his anger further. (Walsh, 2007, p. 30)

Females are also deprived of their freedom of movement. They are not allowed to travel far from home even for study, work or to socialise. The society is afraid that they might have relationships with men or lose their virginity before marriage, which is considered to be wrong.

What bothers me is the fact that the code is so embedded in every citizen and structure of the society that it is regarded as a national identity and is taught in school at an early age, with boys and girls having to recite it out loud on a daily basis. I agree with Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, Cambodian Minister of Women’s Affairs, who believes that “the Women’s Code of Conduct is an obstacle to development for women.” Following Chbab Srey completely inhibits a woman’s ability to be independent.

Apart from the family, the Cambodians are also socialised into society through mass media due to the improvement of this sector, shifting from total government control to becoming a freer and more democratic media. Nevertheless, the media expansion has not been in the direction of more significant gender or social equity. The Cambodian media are still highly gender-biased and, as Corporal (2009) suggests, “…a very male-dominated industry and world” (p. 1).

The coverage of women in Cambodia’s media mostly spread and reinforced stereotyped views of the Khmer culture and gender order. Women were usually shown as the homemakers who attended to domestic chores and were engaged in childbearing and rearing as well as victims of accidents or as sex objects and rarely in positive roles. Furthermore, they were seen as uneducated and weak. Strong women were portrayed as negative and less desirable than weak, subservient women and mostly ended up as victims of violence. Social awareness programs, interviews, and quiz and talk shows mainly portrayed women in traditional roles or as entertainers. Even the social awareness programs which support the need to send girls to school and campaign for change in the status of women by providing education on the prevention of domestic violence, and by reducing the trafficking of women, strongly advocate the importance of traditional roles for women. The popular program “Profiles,” in which famous Cambodians were interviewed, mainly showed glamorous females and video stars who focused on how they became famous, and the kind of husband they wanted (“Women and Development,” n.d., para. 1).

Such gender-biased media present an alarming problem for females because how they are portrayed can lead to the ongoing subjugation of women and the unrelenting conviction that they are only objects of male contentment and housekeepers. Women do not want to aim high, to be successful because they do not want to be isolated, to be undesired by men. If the media continues to operate in this way, initiatives, policies, and strategies of governments and civil society to liberate women from social discrimination will not work.

Religious practices are associated with women’s subordination in Cambodia where more than 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. Buddhism indirectly justifies women’s order in society by indirectly citing a past Karma (sin) to pervade their psyches and obstruct them from moving out of their traditional roles. This belief has been so entrenched in them that they believe their destiny is predetermined. Theoretically, Buddhism recognises equality between men and women–with no intellectual difference between them (Seneviratne & Currie, 1994). However, Buddhism adjusts to its immediate culture as in the case of Cambodia where the culture is male-dominated and promotes strong gender roles. Buddhism’s liberalising influences have often been overemphasised because, as Seneviratne and Currie (1994) indicate, the scales always tip in favour of males. Buddhism irrefutably supports gender inequality because it allows Cambodian men to appropriate all social roles and keep women in subordinate position throughout their life. Women are taught to serve men at all time and to be virtuous and faithful wives or self-sacrificing, devoted mothers.

These religious practices and beliefs, much like the family socialisation process, affect women by limiting their freedom and mobility. It appears to me then that until these religious exercises are somehow deconstructed, or Cambodian women are made aware of how these cultural mores have restricted women’s views of themselves or how religion is repressing them, nothing will be able to change their exploited conditions.

The spread of education is the best way to address social issues. It is, as Wright (2000) describes, the catalyst that moves individuals and communities out of poverty and ignorance, into an improved quality of life. Education that is supposed to help emancipate people, especially women from their difficulties, and from the grip of the culture of male domination is also constraining them and thus fails to offer hope for their total liberation.

Teaching materials and study activities, as Lui and Li (2010) mention, are important elements of school educational activities because students shape a perspective on the world through them. In Cambodia, the content of teaching materials at all levels shows remarkable gender differences. Males are depicted as tough, rough and mentally skilled people who are adventurous while females are characterised as soft, gentle people who enjoy carrying out domestic obligations. Also, the school environment and the education system as a whole contribute to the problem. They perpetuate discrimination by being gender insensitive and gender blind, by encouraging male models, principles and values which signify that women should be subordinate. This bias in favour of men prevents young girls and women from obtaining an education and thus translates into further marginalisation of women in economic and political life.

In conclusion, granting women the same opportunities and equal values and treatment as men concerning education and occupation and political participation is vital for advancing development, reducing poverty and eliminating discrimination against women. Nevertheless, Cambodian women find it difficult to free themselves from male subordination due to the country’s centuries-old traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal structures and practices. Female subordination is deeply entrenched in Cambodian society through family, media, educational context and religious teachings.

If Cambodian women are to be fully liberated, the accepted values and attitudes emerging from patriarchal practices need to be eliminated. Laws and policies should be made and amended to accommodate women. Cambodian society needs to honestly reconsider the application of its traditional code for women which contains moral principles regulating behaviours that perpetuate discrimination against women in many aspects of their life. The present inclusion of this code in the school curriculum, and in local art forms will only reinforce gender stereotypes and male dominating behaviour and thereby limits women’s full appreciation of their rights. A resocialization process beginning in the family is needed because it will spread through other social spheres due to its essential place in Cambodian society. Overcoming female subordination requires resolution, passion, and dedication of everybody in society, both men and women.

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