Phnom Penh, Cambodia
“Feminism is new in Cambodia.”
My name is Catherine Harry, I am 22 years old and I live in Phnom Penh. I study Mass media and am currently in my 3rd year. I’m an only child but I have half siblings from my dad’s side. Not from a previous marriage, my parents are not really divorced, so it’s a polygamy sort of family. To support my studies I have multiple jobs. For instance, I am currently a Lifestyle managing editor for an online magazine.
I would like to do something with film. Making films. But I also want to be more involved in Feminism. Feminism is new in Cambodia. So hopefully I can combine them together and help the media industry get into feminism, introducing that concept in the media and also playing part in videos.
One of the thing I really have problem with is catcalling, sexual harassment, that kind of stuff.
I cannot walk on the streets alone without being cat called which is horrible. I remember walking my dog, it would be at night, a hundred meters away from home and it was like 8 – 9 at night. It wasn’t too late but I was cat called by these two guys on a motorbike. It was kind of threatening because the street was empty and I was a hundred meters away from home. They were riding very close to me. I felt unsafe. I felt violated. I was just walking down the street. They made me feel threatened, it was horrible. It happens a lot. It stills makes me furious to this day.
“I know I have potential, I didn’t want people to undermine my potential just because I am a woman.”
I have always been the kind of person that wants equality, equal treatment and respect, ever since I was young. My mom raised me to be fair so I always wanted that. And growing up I studied all about inequality and mistreatments towards women and I realized how unfair the situation was. My passion was born. I became very passionate. Because I know I have potential, I didn’t want people to undermine my potential just because I am a woman. So I started to get involved in it. The more I saw what was going on in the world the more I got angry. That angers started a fire which turned into a passion. My mom was a role model for me.
“I remember that when I was in third or fourth grade, I was a very typical Cambodian girl, meaning, sort of conservative. Also very judgmental.”
From being a child to now I have gone through phases that also came with the name changing because I felt that the person today is no longer the girl I was 10 years ago. At one point, things just turn to 180 degree. I remember that when I was in third or fourth grade, I was a very typical Cambodian girl, meaning, sort of conservative. Also very judgmental. My grandmother was kind of difficult. She was conservative and I remember her being quite mean to my cousin when she was going out at night or going out in general. I was raised in a family that respected gender equality but some members of my family were conservative. I was quite typical in this way of being conservative too. I didn’t even know about feminism. I remember being in fifth or sixth grade and look at a girl differently if she was not a virgin anymore or if, for instance, she had tattoos – which I have too now! I know that if I could go back in time and see the young me she would be surprised to see who I am now. So a complete 180 degree turn.
“Nowadays, they don’t apply much this code of conduct anymore. But even though they don’t teach it in class anymore people still refer to it to judge a woman’s behavior. If you follow it then you are a good woman”
At that time, my life goal was to get married at 21 year old. I thought that it would be the best thing ever and that I would have a family and be a good woman, wife and mother. But then I grew up and I stop having those ideas. Now marriage is not in my mind any more. At one point I just began reading a lot. I started learning more about the world and that just changed me. I was lured into the idea of equality and feminism and I started to fight. I was rebelling. I changed a lot.
The society shapes us but also school and this code of conduct for girls, the Chbab srey (see article on the Chbab Srey here). Back in the days, that code was taught at school but not much anymore, at least not in the city. This code is absurd. It is all about how to please men and especially your husband. For instance, it says that you should wake up before him and go to bed after him once you have done your chores. Nowadays, they don’t apply much this code of conduct anymore. But even though they don’t teach it in class anymore people still refer to it to judge a woman’s behavior. If you follow it then you are a good woman.
“I like to say that this is like the Stockholm syndrome. You are a victim but you don’t realize it or because you are so used to it, you forget that the situation is everything but normal or fair.”
Being a woman makes me want to work twice as hard to prove myself which is not necessarily a bad thing. It pushes me, it motivates me to go further, to be more. Because I know that in society I have to fight for it, because I don’t get the same privileges as a man does. I can’t just sit by and wait for things to happen. Because I am in this situation I understand how women are being treated. I experienced it myself so I know I have to fight for it.
Being a woman makes me more passionate about other causes, about other movements and it makes me empathetic because I understand what people can go through.
I try to minimize the situation as much as possible because I don’t want my life to be restricted by my gender. However, it has certainly put some limitations to who I am or what I can do especially in terms of mobility. I know I cannot walk my dog at night unless I am with my boyfriend or I cannot get on a scooter at night when it is really late because I can get harassed. In terms of mobility it is crazy.
I wish that young girls would be more confident. If they are confident they will be able to demand their rights, they will be able to do more, to crave for more rather than just being a housewife or a good mum.
It is not only the government duty. If the government set some laws and restrictions it is not going to work if the society is not ready to accept women as equal as men. I think it is time for people to gather and create movements. It is time to do something about it. Perhaps the government could help such movement led by women and men to exist and spread messages about gender equality across. The more women are informed the more they realize that they have potential and that they have rights. Thus, they would realize that they should be treated equally and not like second class citizen.
I like to say that it is like the Stockholm syndrome. You are a victim but you don’t realize it or because you are so used to it, you forget that the situation is everything but normal or fair.
It is sad that women have to learn all of these things to stay “safe” but we never teach men how to not harass women. We are being told how to talk, how to behave, what to dress, when and with who we can go out in order to not get harassed or raped, like the problem comes from us.
At school I have witnessed rules that only applied to girls. I remember being taught that at school you should never wear your hair down because it may be seen inappropriate or even slutty. They told us what we should say, how we should dress and so on.
“I still hope that things will change. Many people now speak on social media and unite their voices.”
I think it is amazing to be a woman in Cambodia because in a way it has taught me to fight for what I believe, to be passionate about social causes. If I had been living in a country where equality was respected I wouldn’t have that fire in me. I’m thankful for that, for being in a country where being a women is difficult but in the same time amazing. I also do have hopes because I see many women rising up, freeing themselves and speaking out. However, things are not as good as they could be. For instance, the nomination of Trump as the US president affects developing countries like Cambodia. He has taken a huge step backward on all the work US agencies, organizations and foundations have done for the past few years in terms of women’s empowerment, gender equality, women’s health and so on…
I still hope that things will change. Many people now speak on social media and unite their voices. Things will change, definitely, but it might take longer.
“They have to understand that rights is not either or, we don’t take from someone, we have it.”
I think education is the key. Already some of the educated men are ready for it, ready for that change. But at the same time men are raised with this ideology that they are superior to women. They may feel threaten to give us more power.We made a video about virginity (read the article here) and one viewer let a comment and said that I let feminism ruin my culture. They have to understand that rights is not either or. We don’t take it from someone, we have it.
“I think the rest of the world likes to view Cambodians, like any other Asian women, weak, docile and gentle, quiet and submissive. They may think we are just kind of decoration in a house.”
I think the rest of the world like to view Cambodian, like any other Asian women, weak docile and gentle, quiet and submissive. They may think we are just kind of decoration in a house. I have seen western men come here to find women because western women are too strong or too masculine so they seek for Asian women thinking that they are more feminine and obedient and would not complain and do as they are told. They think Asian women won’t talk back.
In order to drive change, we have to speak up and educate ourselves. Women cannot understand their rights if they are not educated about it. Then they learn that their rights should be respected. There is not exactly a feminist movement in Cambodia, neither does a Khmer word exist for the term “Feminism”. But changes take generation so hopefully one day this will happen in Cambodia. With our vlog A dose of Cath, we are hoping that we can spread messages about feminism. I think that right now if we start a movement, probably only a few people will join. We hope that the vlog will take off and that more people will open their eyes on the situation for women in Cambodia. Once we gather people around our vlog perhaps we could create a movement. The vlog currently has 100,000 viewers, our video about virginity has reached 1 million viewers. (You can watch this video here.) We created it in mid-february. The comment section is a battlefield but that is where we can change people’s minds. It is about women, feminism, sexism, etc.
“So far feminism has been exclusively white or from colored people living in western rich countries but this is changing.”
People associate feminism with women from western countries. Most people see Asian women as weak persons so they don’t think that we actually want rights. But women are getting aware of their rights and this is spreading through all corners of Asia. So far feminism has been exclusively white or from colored people living in western rich countries but this is changing. Women from the third world are waking up and demanding their rights to be respected too. Sometimes people try to undermine our fight because if we fight with this banner of feminism people will answer by saying that there are some more serious causes to fight for such as children starving, people being mutilated and so on. Our cause is not worth more or less, it is just as important as the rest.
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about what is inspiring about women is that we can kick ass in high heels and we can kick ass in snickers! In a way we are fighting double to reach the top – that makes us work harder and that makes us stronger. Things are not easy for us but it makes things worth even more.
Catherine keeps a blog called A Dose of Cath, aiming at promoting women’s rights, “Let’s break all taboos and social norms! Just because people say so, does that make it always right? Let’s discuss topics that might make you question what we’ve been told to do. Share your opinions and we shall rebel together.” You can visit Catherine’s blog here