Cambodia

Not shy nor quiet – fighting to challenge gender roles

Bopha

Battambang, Cambodia

“In Cambodia, boys are considered to be a lot smarter than girls”

In Cambodia, boys are supposed to be a lot smarter than girls. One day, my mom told me that I had to clean the house. I asked her “why can’t I go to school? My brother is free, he can do it!”. But my mom said “he’s a boy”, for me, if my brother does it I’ll do it, but if not, I’m sorry but I don’t want to do it. It was a hard conversation to have with my mom, because in Cambodia, when you fight with your parents it’s very hard, so hard that you end up crying. Here, everything the parents say is supposed to be right. So they told me I was wrong, they said I was just being lazy.

It’s hard for women because parents don’t respect them, but they always respect men. For example, my brother, he was a gangster – a very big gangster in my hometown – yet, he was treated nicely. But me, just because I went out to have a drink they would say I was a bad girl. I couldn’t do the same things than my brother, my parents said it was because I was a girl! When I was younger, it was too hard to talk to them. So when I went out drinking, I hid it from them.

“I needed to show them that I could do better”

My sister, she’s a girl so she had to take care of the house. She used to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning, clean, wash the clothes, take care of the younger siblings and then cook. She was never going out, she stayed everyday 24 hours in the house. She did a lot of things but when I looked at her I thought “I can’t do that”.  I knew that my parents were wrong but I didn’t know how to tell them or how to change them. For that, I needed to show them that I could do better. This is Cambodian culture, if I had done what I wanted to do they’d have said that I was lazy. For my family I’m lazy. But the reason I didn’t want to do this was because if my brothers didn’t have to do it, I didn’t think I had to do it either. They said “it’s not for the boys it’s for the girls” but I said “if it’s for the boys then it should be for me too”.

Now I’m really proud of myself, I changed my parents’ mindset. A while back, I went to Phnom Penh and I stayed there for 4 years. I didn’t work, I just went out drinking and did nothing. Not even studying. But then I thought I needed to finish college. I didn’t know how to do it. The only thing I knew is that I needed to go somewhere where I didn’t have friends, somewhere new, so I moved to Battambang. For 3 years I was always alone, I didn’t want to meet anybody. I ate alone, went out alone and stayed at home. Even when I was sad, I stayed alone. I finished college. I studied law. But I don’t want to work for the government because there is too much corruption. So I am a bartender.

“Hopefully people can change but it doesn’t mean they should forget about their own culture”

I think today there is a lot of change compared to when I was young. A lot of tourists are coming to Cambodia. Hopefully people can change  but it doesn’t mean they should forget about their own culture. Nowadays, young people are changing things but, unfortunately, always in the wrong way because they hide it from their parents. For example, boyfriends and girlfriends still don’t sit together but they do a lot of drugs. They see the westerners and they want to do the same. They don’t think about the consequences, they just want to be happy. When I wanted to have fun, I always thought about my parents. Now young people just think “ok, I just want to be like the westerners”, but they don’t know how to be like them.

“The neighbors, whom my parents always listened to, said that a girl couldn’t do what boys can. But I would always say to myself: one day, I’ll change their mind”

Ideally, women should be able to express themselves. Children in Cambodia always listen to their parents but if they worry about something I wish they could just talk about it. But in Cambodia we never, ever, talk. Even if you are wrong, you should still talk about it. You should talk about the world, open your mind and your heart. For example when I tried to talk to my parents they said “You are young, you can’t talk with the old people”, so they stopped me. So I could never share anything.

Now, I can share with my father. It was hard because my father is stubborn! He was in the police force and he never got any ideas from other people. The neighbors, whom my parents always listened to, said that a girl couldn’t do what boys can. But I would always say to myself “one day, I’ll change their mind”. And I did! I was drinking with my father and I said “you never gave me a chance to talk to you because I never had a job, I never got anything, but now I have a job, now I can talk to you, now I don’t listen to you anymore, now you listen to me!” and he did! And my mom is the same, they listen to me now. Sometimes we are arguing, but before we couldn’t. I always said “one day!” And I did it! Now they don’t bother me on what a girl should or shouldn’t do anymore. My dad wanted to have boys. I have 2 brothers, they didn’t finish high school. But me, I did everything right so he listens to me more.

I told my parents, “if you listen to the neighbors, they will always be jealous and you will always be angry at me, but it’s me you should listen to because I am your daughter. You should believe me and trust me, I accept you but you never accepted me. You’re always angry at me because I’m a girl. I might do some things wrong but I would never do something to make you unhappy”. Everybody looks at me and say “oh, she’s a girl and her parents let her do this!”, but it’s so stupid, people think that I don’t care. They think I don’t listen to my parents, but I listen to them, but whether I’ll follow them or not, it’s up to me!

I might not be the best person, I know that when I go out drinking they say I’m a bad person. I’m not looking to upset anyone, I want to make people happy. Yes, I drink, but I never get people in trouble.

“In the city now it’s easier to be a woman. A long time ago it was hard. The situation is still not 100% equal. The 100% is for the women who can afford it”

Before, between women and men, it was always the men on top. Now it changed because girls can go to high school and university. I think with education now we are the same. Some people still think men should always be on top, but now, men and women can do the same.

in the countryside it’s not the same, there, it’s too hard for women. Because they don’t go to college, some of them don’t even go to school. Boys are always the ones to earn money for the family. In the city now it’s easier to be a woman. The situation is still not 100% equal. The 100% is for the women who can afford it.

“Girls here need to protect themselves, because no one protects Cambodian girls”

Girls here need to protect themselves, because no one protects Cambodian girls. When they have a problem, they always hide it. If they have a problem, if they have a question, they should be able to just ask and tell everybody what they need. Khmer girls are shy. Sometimes they need help but they are scared to ask, they are afraid of people being rude to them. Cambodian women are very shy, they don’t talk about sex for example. They are not open about it, we know about it but we can’t talk about it. Here you don’t share because you don’t want your parents to know, you don’t want them to worry. I want changes because I want women to be strong women. If I had a piece of advice to give to young girls I would tell them, “open your mind, be strong, and come on! do whatever you want! tell them! Don’t do it the wrong way, follow your own heart and not everyone else’s heart. If you do things your way, then you won’t have regrets. You can fix your problems, not your regrets.”

“I just follow my heart. People in Cambodia don’t follow their hearts, they just follow everybody else”

For me it is hard because I love girls. That’s not as hard as it used to be. My family is ok about it but it is not easy to tell in all families. Some families they don’t understand. My family still wants me to get married to a guy. Maybe I will do it someday, but not now. Now I just follow my heart. I don’t want to think about that now. My family say that one day I will change and love boys because I will want to get married and be happy. I just follow my heart. People in Cambodia don’t follow their hearts, they just follow everybody else.

I feel like we are misrepresented because when I ask foreigners “what do you think about Cambodian women?”, they always say “Cambodian women are very nice” but they don’t understand the culture. They think Cambodian women are very nice, but they think they don’t do the same as men.

“Everyone thinks that because I work at a bar I’m a prostitute”

When I say I work at a bar, the Khmer people say “you are a prostitute” but I am not.  And then they say “I have money I can do whatever I want”. Some westerners think that if they offer money I will just go with them, I know sometimes money is important, but it’s not the most important for me.

When I was young, there was this girl, she sold beer and people would touch her and they all thought they were allowed to do that. They said “you’re a prostitute” but she wasn’t, they were wrong. Now, everyone who works as a waitress is always mistaken for a prostitute but no! You ask first! It’s not right. Sometimes the westerners think they can touch me, so I say “no! Get you hand back, I don’t want to put you in trouble!”

I don’t think that all prostitute are bad, because they need money or something, and they can do whatever they want. They should be able to do whatever they want. I don’t want people to say they are bad girls, I don’t think that, I always support them, you do what you want.

“People don’t know about the Khmer people, they have no idea”

Between Cambodia and the western world the culture is very different. Foreigners are always open minded. In Cambodia, girls can’t show their body, but the westerners can. A western woman can say that she’s had sex with 10 guys, but if a Cambodian woman had sex before she can’t say it. A western woman, if she had sex at 17 or 18, she can say it, but a Cambodian woman no, it’s different. And all the people talk behind you all the time. Even if you don’t care, everybody cares about you!

And the Americans, they make a lot of TV so people can understand their culture but it’s not true the other way around. People don’t know about the Khmer people, they have no idea.

“In Cambodia we try to have more freedom but it might take 20 years, and still we won’t change everybody. So for the moment some people hide themselves (…) because they think it’s hopeless”

There are many people around the world, everyone does things differently. Even Cambodia and Thailand are very different. In Cambodia we try to have more freedom, but it might take 20 years, and still we won’t change everybody. So for the moment, some people hide themselves to other people or to their parents so they can do whatever they want, because they think it’s hopeless.

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