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A Proper Woman – Breaking Down Gender Norms in Cambodia

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Image + Words by THAVRY THUN

Cambodian society has always been rigid. The country’s rich culture, traditions and adherence to Buddhism have remained largely intact since the pinnacle of the Angkorian civilization for which Cambodia is famous. For older generations, such as my mother’s, strict adherence to those rules was uniformly accepted and unquestioned.


Yet today, in a country where 32 percent of the population is under 14 years old, there are a great number of people growing up who were not directly affected by the turmoil and civil war that dominated Cambodia for the last 30 years. This social evolution and drive for change, aided by largely unhindered access to the internet and improvements in education, means that a new generation of Cambodians is seeking equality and agency that until now was simply impossible. This is especially apparent when it comes to gender equality and women’s rights.

When I was young my mother used to tell me stories about how girls had to perform household chores like cooking, cleaning and weaving, and only rarely left the house. Women were not permitted to talk openly with men and had limited access to higher education. My mother was never able to achieve her dream of becoming a teacher and ended up in an arranged marriage when she was 21 years old. She first met her husband-to-be, my father, on their wedding day.

Those same cultural norms were instilled in me since I could walk and talk. I learned those expectations at school and witnessed them at home within my family. But I have always found it difficult to live in a society in which I must remain conscious at all times of entrenched gender roles, female subservience and how to be a proper woman.

Such norms have given me reason to fight for what I want and who I want to be without being shaped by cultural expectations. And yet, I realize that it is particularly tricky for me at this time in Cambodia because I exist in a transitional time period that values a modern, global perspective alongside the beauty of traditional culture and community.

If I want to be free from the rules and bias that currently make me a second-class citizen, I am therefore forced to fight and live a very different life from that of a proper woman. In order to live my life, although I have done no harm to anyone, I need to be prepared to receive criticism simply because I want to do what I know is right and just. Our societal rules and cultural paradigms were created in a world that has long since passed. So why in this day and age can’t I stand up for my own thoughts and perspectives?

It hurts to live in a society that does not value equality for both genders. If you only take notice, injustice reveals itself in the very fabric of our culture. I have asked myself countless times about gender bias and normative conservatism, and why blame is typically placed on women.

As a woman, no matter what you say, never talk foolishly or loudly. As for your virtue, work hard and protect yourself and your virginity.

At school in Cambodia, we are taught how to behave like proper Cambodian women, following the mantra and beliefs passed down from older generations. But herein lies the hypocrisy. The reality of Cambodian culture is that it is perfectly acceptable for men to have sex before marriage. Men are compared to gold; and as such when they get ‘dirty’ they can simply be washed clean. Women, on the other hand, are compared to sheets of white linen that once soiled can never be washed clean again.

In practice this means it is fine for men to have sex with prostitutes as long as they protect themselves and stop once they are married.

Women are absolutely prohibited from having sex before marriage, and if they do so, they are cursed. They will be blamed by their family and society in general for not having protected that most precious

of things, their virtue. They will be blamed for having disgraced their family. They will be considered dirty, and people will speak poorly about them for the rest of their life.

Female sex workers in Cambodia are looked down upon by society. They are not virtuous women; they do a dirty job. But who creates and sustains the demand for this market? Isn’t it the ‘golden’ gender who is constantly in need of being washed clean?

Lomor Kero Rithy is co-founder of the artistic student group Plerng Kob and a member of SmallWorld SmallBand, a cooperative work space and entrepreneurial collective based in Phnom Penh. She has strong views about cultural norms and how society treats women differently than men.

“When a woman has a boyfriend older people invariably warn her, ‘Be careful not to lose your virginity. It is fine for a man because they are like gold, but as a woman, once he gets your body, he will run away and leave you.’ Don’t women have any value at all? If you lose your virginity with a man does it mean you have to marry him? Are we afraid of having no one to ask for our hand? In my opinion, if I have sex with a man it doesn’t mean I HAVE TO MARRY HIM. That’s my choice.”

Traditionally, women in Cambodia shouldn’t strive for higher education because a woman’s role is in the house. Society here is such that it is unthinkable for women to work as managers, architects, designers, entrepreneurs or leaders. I frequently hear that women don’t need higher education because in the future they’ll still just be someone’s wife.

Another common belief I hear frequently is that girls shouldn’t travel far from their homes as it isn’t safe for them. Why should a woman be scared to walk freely? Rather than confining women to their homes in fear, shouldn’t we educate men to respect women? Rape is universally understood as a terrible thing, yet it is still prevalent in societies around the world. When a woman is raped in Cambodia, she is considered spoiled; no one could possibly want to marry her. Why do we ask why she chose to visit such a dangerous place instead of asking why men force themselves upon women against their will? Again, why blame the victims?

Endear Van is CEO of E&T Asia, a Phnom Penh-based consulting firm that provides research logistics for international clients. She feels that women in Cambodia are viewed as weak and dependent, as if a woman is incapable of looking after herself.

“If you are a woman living in Cambodia, you can expect to be questioned about your desire to go pretty much anywhere. ‘Why do you want to go there? It’s not safe! Just stay at home!’ Gender expectations serve to prevent women from doing anything new or exciting; most are successfully convinced that it’s not safe and that they can’t take care of themselves. The worst-case scenario always comes up: Can you protect yourself if someone wants to rape you?

“As for the lack of women in leadership roles, it’s rooted in legacy. We haven’t seen many female leaders in the past, which has perpetuated the belief that women are incapable. The limitations of the past still haunt the present. My response is yes, women can be leaders! You start with education, which is the foundation for equality. Then, if women are afforded the same opportunities as men, they can use their educated brain to make informed decisions about anything from politics to business to traveling safely without having to listen to people around them telling them what they can and can’t do.”

Issues of education, sexual practice and safety are ever-present for unmarried women. Codes of conduct exist for all circumstances. “Forgive your husband. Don’t speak in a way that suggests you consider him an equal.” Or “No matter what your husband says, even if he’s angry and cursing, don’t use strong language, complain or curse because your husband will be displeased. Be patient with him and calm your anger.”

The rule states that women should remain quiet and subservient. Under no circumstances should they stand up for their rights because, if they do, the husband will become even angrier. Where can equality exist if not within the family?

Kounila Keo is a blogger and media consultant who is currently completing her master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. She writes, “Neither women nor men should allow discrimination

to remain normalized behavior or limit what someone can do in society. Breaking down those norms is a journey both challenging and lonely, but once you challenge convention, you gain pride and confidence and realize that everything can be considered impossible until it is done.”

Because of the pain I feel as a woman born in an unequal society, I want to speak out for the countless women who feel like they don’t have a voice. I was raised hearing these rules required of a proper woman, a woman who will one day have a man ask for her hand in marriage.

It’s difficult for the older generations to accept, but many young women want to live in a country where they are afforded more respect and better opportunities. True gender equality in Cambodia is still a long way off, but it’s a struggle for basic human rights and dignity. Women, like men, deserve to be valued. Isn’t that good for all? Perhaps Cambodian society is afraid that if women are educated, they will stand up and fight for their rights and men won’t be able to control them anymore. I have struggled fighting for my freedom. I have been regularly criticized, had people talk poorly of me behind my back, and insinuate nasty things. They have tried to influence my family to force me to discontinue my studies because, after all, I’m just a rural girl. But none of them could stop me. I will continue to break rules and seek my own freedom because I believe that the world will be just only when the rights of all are respected and the voices of all can be heard.

THAVRY THUN was an instructor on the 2015 Cambodia summer course and leads cycling trips for PEPY tours and Toursanak. An active participant in the SmallWorld SmallBand entrepreneurial collective based in Phnom Penh, she has published three children’s novels in Khmer and English.

One Comment

  1. Alyssa Rallo Bennett |

    I really enjoyed reading about you and the shift in Cambodia. I am working on a women’s rights narrative anthology series , and would love to talk to you about your experiences further and possible include an episode inspired by you. Please email me at your earliest convenience. Best, Alyssa


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