A female YouTuber is leading a movement shaking off the legacy of the Chbap Srey, an oppressive code of conduct for women that was only removed from primary school curricula of Cambodia in 2007.
The code instructs women to walk slowly and laugh quietly. It extols obedience and submission and dictates that women “serve” husbands and never discuss family issues outside the home.
It takes the form of a poem and is thought to have originated in the 14th century before being passed down orally through the generations until it was put in writing 500 years later.
But for Catherine Harry, she challenges all this on her popular vlog”A Dose of Cath,” as she tackles the gender taboos that still pervade her native Cambodia.
“Chbap Srey legitimises domestic violence and violence against women,” Harry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview. “And it has been deeply ingrained in a lot of people’s minds.”
“Women, unlike men, rely on a wide variety of factors to raise their sexual desires,” Harry said to the camera as she opened a forthcoming episode on women’s libido.
“It is important to check with your partner from time to time, establishing ongoing consent, to make sure that she is comfortable with the experience,” she says to her YouTube audience.
The episode on libido follows others titled Know Your Vulva, Let’s Talk Period, and Is Masturbation Bad? – topics she said were near impossible to learn about elsewhere in the local Khmer language.
“In Cambodia, sex is taboo,” she said. “People don’t talk about it … I’m trying to give them a source on these things without having to learn about it from porn.”
In a nation of 16 million people, Harry’s most popular offerings get upwards of 2 million views.
And while Cambodia’s young population is increasingly educated, the women’s movement remains 50 years behind the rest of the world, Harry said, held back by what she called “old-school feminists” who see the world through the lens of Chbap Srey.
“They are from the generation that wasn’t very critical of society, of the institution, so it kind of makes sense,” Harry said, explaining how she was labelled “too extreme” by supposed allies after denouncing the code in her vlog.
“Not many people want to be in my position,” she said of challenging the status quo. “I have lost a number of friends.”
While the code was banned from schools more than a decade ago, elements of it still pervade the education system, sometimes in disguise, Harry said, including in the textbook for a personal development class she took.
“We had to learn what it’s like to be a good wife … the characteristics of a good woman, how you should please your husband,” she said.
“It has become a part of our society and it’s extremely dangerous.”
Last year, the United Nations reiterated calls for the code to be “fully eliminated” from schools, labelling it a “root cause of the disadvantaged position of women”.
One well-known Khmer proverb goes: women, like white cloth, are easily soiled, while men, like gems, can be polished anew.
One in five men in a 2013 U.N. survey said they had raped a woman.
More recently, singers and actresses have been accused by government officials of disrespecting Cambodian culture by wearing revealing outfits. Some have been banned from performing.
“People keep spilling out the word culture when they want to police someone’s body,” Harry said.
“But what do they really know about our culture? Culture is not static. Like technology, it changes all the time.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)