Cambodia is trying to take away women’s right to freely choose what to wear

Menghun Kaing and Sievlan Len:

A woman exercises at a park in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Aug. 11. (Mak Remissa/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

If a draft law currently under consideration is enacted in Cambodia, we might have to throw away some of our favorite outfits, and our rights and freedom along with them, when we return to our home country.

Cambodia recently proposed the Law on Public Order that, among other restrictive provisions, would allow police to fine or imprison women deemed to be dressed inappropriately. The law would ban women from wearing clothes that are “too short” or “too see-through” and men from being “shirtless” in public.

“It’s good to wear something no shorter than the middle of the thighs,” said Ouk Kim Lek, the secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior who is leading the drafting of the law. So far, the law has received support from 20 of the 24 provincial administrations across the country.

The law was proposed in response to an increasing concern by senior government officials that women wearing “sexy” outfits while selling clothes via Facebook livestreams are damaging traditional culture. In February, the Cambodian prime minister called for a crackdown on such online sellers.

Like many women’s rights advocates, we are deeply concerned that this draft law would further oppress women, taking away this very basic freedom. Illegalizing women’s clothing choices legitimizes blaming victims of sexual violence for their outfits, rather than punishing perpetrators. This law will reinforce patriarchy and imperil women’s rights in Cambodia.

Growing up in rural post-genocide Cambodia, we had to overcome enormous economic and cultural barriers to become first-generation college graduates and to continue graduate studies in the United States.

From an early age, we learned the dos and don’ts of what is culturally considered being a “proper woman.” The dos included cooking for your family, keeping a clean household, speaking softly, being polite, getting married, having children and respecting your husband. The don’ts were to not make eye contact with men, not sleep past sunrise, not talk back, not wear revealing clothing, not study too much and not go far from home. The list goes on.

These rules can be traced back to Cambodia’s long-practiced “Chbab Srey” or “Law for Women,” a poem by the male poet Krom Ngoy, which narrates a code of conduct a woman ought to follow to be considered “proper,” including keeping quiet even if her husband hits her. Although not legally binding, Chbab Srey is included in the school curriculum and is entrenched in Cambodian society.

As “improper” as we are, we refuse to submit to these damaging cultural norms. We questioned authority and pursued our dreams, studying and traveling halfway across the globe.

Many Cambodian women and advocates have been fighting for the advancement of women’s rights for years. Cambodia has relinquished some patriarchal traditional practices, including the “feet-washing” ceremony that reinforces female submission by requiring the bride to wash the groom’s feet. Today, more and more girls attend school. The literacy rate for women 15 and older increased from 57 percent in 1998 to 75 percent in 2015. The female labor-force participation rate rose from 76.1 percent in 2001 to 79.2 percent in 2012. Women own the majority of businesses in Cambodia (61 percent), contributing significantly to the economy.

The draft law threatens to put all of this progress at risk.

Even before this bill, Cambodian women already have had their rights to their bodies taken away. In 2017, an actress was banned from appearing in movies for a year after the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts found her attire to have violated a code of conduct relating to national “ethics” and “virtue.” Earlier this year, a woman was sentenced to six months in prison after ignoring official warnings to wear less revealing outfits while selling clothing online.

The rationale of the draft law is to preserve the national traditions of Cambodia. “It’s not entirely a matter of public order, it’s a matter of tradition and custom,” Kim Lek, the secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior.

As societies evolve, so do traditions and cultures. Traditional norms that have detrimental effects are not worth preserving. In 1912, China outlawed the century-long tradition of foot-binding of girls, a practice later known to cause paralysis, gangrene, ulceration and even death. Many survivors lived with severe physical limitations. Some countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are joining a global effort to eliminate female circumcision, a traditional practice that can lead to serious health complications and death.

In the era of the #MeToo movement, when women around the world are speaking up against injustice, Cambodia is about to further oppress its women by taking away their fundamental right to choose what they wear. We join the thousands of Cambodian women to urge the legislature to kill the bill. Let’s begin a new tradition, in which the dignity of our nation is based on the equality of our women and men.

Article reproduced from The Washington Post.

Menghun Kaing is an Obama Scholar and a recent master’s graduate of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Sievlan Len is a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in international policy.


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