The Chbab Srey is a code of conduct for women (Chbab is Khmer for code, and Srey for woman). In the form of a poem, it describes how a woman should behave, with a special focus on her attitude towards her husband.
In the heart of Angkor Wat’s majestic shadow, whispers of another kind of monument echo: Chbab Srey, the ancient poem dictating the “perfect Cambodian woman.” Etched not in stone but in societal expectations, it remains a potent force, shaping lives and sparking debate in a rapidly modernizing Cambodia.
Chabab Srey, meaning “Women’s Rules,” is a centuries-old poem outlining the virtues and behaviors of Cambodian women. It depicts the ideal woman as submissive, devoted to her husband and family, and adept at domestic skills. While originally intended as a moral compass, its rigid prescriptions often translate to limitations, confining women within a narrow realm of expectations.
The poem’s legacy is complex. In rural areas, where tradition holds sway, Chbab Srey continues to guide behavior. Women find solace in its familiar teachings, navigating family dynamics and social expectations with the poem as their lodestar. Yet, its constraints are undeniable. Educational opportunities can be stifled, career aspirations dismissed, and voices silenced under the pressure of conformity.
Urban spaces tell a different story. Cambodia’s rapid development empowers women through education and economic opportunities. Chabab Srey’s dictates clash with the aspirations of a generation yearning for agency and equality. Young women juggle professional ambitions with societal pressures, often navigating a delicate dance between honoring tradition and carving their paths.
Don’t bring the outside flame into the house and then burn it.Chbab Srey
Your skirt must not rustle while you walk.
You must be patient and eat only after the men in your family have finished.
You must serve and respect your husband at all times and above all else.
You can’t touch your husband’s head without first bowing in respect.
School is more useful for boys than girls.
This code of conduct has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries and is still considered to be the basis of the representation of gender roles in Cambodia. It was formally taught in school until, in 2007, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs demanded it be pulled from the school’s curriculum. Nevertheless, only some of the rules were removed, meaning some of them are still taught, which shows how influential this text remains to this day.
Chbab Srey is still passed from mothers to daughters and is widely influential, especially in rural areas where it is deeply rooted in the perception of gender roles.
One of the rules of Chbab Srey states that women should refrain from sharing what happens in the household outside of the home. This makes reporting cases of domestic or sexual violence for women particularly challenging.
Be respectful towards your husband.Chbab Srey
Serve him well and keep the flame of the relationship alive.
Otherwise, it will burn you.
Do not bring external problems into the home.
Do not take internal problems out of the home,
Impact of Chbab srey on Cambodian society
The impact of Chbab Srey on Cambodian society transcends individual lives. It contributes to gender inequality, evident in wage gaps and a pervasive culture of silence surrounding domestic violence. Its emphasis on obedience can hinder women’s participation in public life, limiting their voices in politics and decision-making.
But amidst the challenges, hope glimmers. A growing chorus questions the poem’s relevance in a changing world. Activists demand equal rights and opportunities. Scholars re-examine Chbab Srey, interpreting its verses through a modern lens, advocating for positive aspects like resilience and family values.
The government, too, acknowledges the need for change. Reforms promote gender equality in education and the workplace. Public awareness campaigns challenge harmful stereotypes. Though progress is slow, the tides are turning.
Ultimately, Chbab Srey’s future hangs in the balance. Will it evolve with Cambodia, shedding its restrictive aspects and embracing an empowering interpretation? Or will it remain a fossilized monument, impeding the country’s progress toward a more equitable future?
As Cambodia walks the tightrope between tradition and modernity, navigating the legacy of Chbab Srey will be a crucial dance. It demands open dialogue, respect for diverse perspectives, and a commitment to creating a society where all, regardless of gender, can flourish. Only then can the echoes of the ancient poem resonate with newfound harmony in the vibrant streets of modern Cambodia.
Today, Chbab Srey is no longer as important as it used to be, as more and more women are challenging the traditional gender norms. Nonetheless, it remains a barrier to gender equality, as shown in a study by Partners For Prevention, an umbrella group of UN agencies working on gender-based violence in Asia.
When participants were asked if people should be treated equally regardless of whether they are male or female, almost all of them agreed. But then, over 95% of them agreed that a woman should obey her husband, and over 80% of them agreed that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family.
Cambodia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEADW) in 1992. The committee in charge of monitoring the progress of the country (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) noted in its observation in 2013 that they were: “concerned that the Chbab Srey, the traditional code of conduct for Women, is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture and continues to define everyday life on the basis of stereotypical roles of women and men in the family and in society.”
Men also have their code of conduct, which encourages them to be strong decision-makers, brave, etc. Their rules are far less strict and mainly promote leadership. While Chbab Srey mostly focuses on obeying the husband, Chbab Proh barely refers to the wives.
This article is just a starting point. Further research into the specific impacts of Chbab Srey on different sectors of Cambodian society (e.g., education, economy, legal system) can enrich the discussion and provide a more nuanced understanding of its complex legacy.