March 11, 2010

My less perfunctory, more deliberate post regarding Women's Day

I let international Women's Day escape me with no real thought. Even though I encouraged others to think, I let myself slide through the day on a bad attitude. Today I came across the Lift insert of our Phnom Penh Post. On the front page, a Khmer woman poses as Rosie the Riveter in a remake of the iconic We Can Do It! Poster. One the first page, a short paragraph explaining Cambodia's lack of a united feminist movement and providing a short explanation of feminist theory stood out on a hot pink background. Throughout the insert, I realized that I take this stuff for granted. Not only having mostly equal opportunities as men, but also being aware of and being vocal about gender equality. Reading the articles, I remembered that gender (in)equality is a new concept for Khmers. Traditional Khmer culture does not support women's education or business endeavors; instead, women are truly expected only to marry and have children. These women should be willing to sacrifice their careers for their families. Even though I acknowledge that being a housewife and caring for children are valuable contributions, in Cambodia, it's the opportunity to choose other life paths that is missing.

As Cambodian society develops at the speed of Korean pop, Lucky Burger and Ford dealerships, women are faced with increasing identity conflict. Khmer girls are expected to adhere to traditional family values, but the cultural shift toward a more liberal society expects girls to be more sexually active. Premarital sex is still a definite taboo in polite (and all) conversation in Cambodia. Similar to what happens in many conservative societies, young Cambodians are becoming sexually active, but they have no sexual education or resources to help them make better choices. Thankfully, the articles included some online resources.

As a whole, I thought the insert was a nice introduction to feminist theory and the current state of affairs for Cambodian women. However, I did find one section particularly disturbing. It was called “5 Cool Things”. The author had selected five items that the modern Cambodian women should have. The first thing was a bank card—to be more financially independent. Okay, that's important, but the author's list of things that could be bought with a bank card (shoes, clothes, etc) was a little superficial. Continuing the superficial trend was the next cool thing, a big handbag. Is there anything cooler than that? ...Moving on to something more culturally relevant, house keys were the next cool thing. So, my assumptions that women had house keys were wrong (yikes!). The caption explained that you can stay out later if you have your own keys (literally “the keys to your house will enable you to experience more exciting places than your kitchen”). I think it was a joking exaggeration by the author, but maybe not. Yes, please get some house keys. After you have permission and the means to leave the house, buy the next cool thing--high heels--with your bank card—style and confidence. Not to mention foot problems. The final cool thing is an ipod. The caption tells readers that going around the city without being bothered by unfamiliar men is “a luxury” (does this make anyone else uncomfortable?). However, once you stick in your earbuds, all those pesky people will magically disappear, leaving you, your bank card, house keys, big bag and high-heels in peace.

The newspaper is a view of the society. From this article, I maintain that Cambodian society is taking on the material items of the western world, but holding on to traditional values that may or may not agree with these possessions. The trouble is that the traditional culture still dominates the mindset. If women are still seen as so incapable that they can't have a house key, or if is acceptable for men to bother women on the street, Cambodia needs to rethink the high heels and ipod.

Here is my revised list of 5 Cool Things:

1.University education—Earning a degree from the university will make you think about new ideas and it will help you get a better job (you might even meet a good husband there!)

2.Reproductive health education--learn how to be responsible for your sex life. Find out how to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy and STDs/HIV, and take responsibility for your actions.

3.Internet newspapers—Save a tree and read about world events in foreign newspapers. Learn about the world outside Cambodia.

4.Shorter haircuts—everybody has long, straight hair. If you want to stand out, why not mix it up and try a new, shorter style?

5.Ipods—okay, after much internal deliberation, I have decided that this is a cool thing, but not as a self-defense tool. Use your ipod to relax or listen while you exercise.