Leave it to my Khmer Teacher to offer a glimmer of hope for the advancement of Cambodian women. This morning she was a little Gloria Steinem at the whiteboard. In the middle of our discussion about things to do on the weekend, she remembered something she wanted to ask me about. Education and a Khmer proverb. As she doodled the letters on the whiteboard, she told me that I would probably have to ask Pheap because she wasn't sure how to explain it in English. I asked her to try to explain. She circled a group of characters in the middle of the phrase. “Kitchen,” she said. I recognized the Khmer symbols for "woman" and from my experience in Women's Studies, I predicted, Women should stay in the kitchen? Affirmative. She nodded vigorously and said, “Yes, that is the Khmer proverb. Especially in the province, women stop going to school because they have to take care of their families.”
It never fails to daunt me how different American and Khmer cultures seem, but how similar they can be. “We have the same proverb: a woman's place is in the kitchen.” I wrote it on the board beneath her's. The proverbs stacked next to each other, I pointed to the word kitchen. This is the part I don't like. She pointed to the circled part of her phrase, “I want to change this.” If destiny has a feeling, that was it.
What should it say? I asked. She wrote lender. I wrote lawyer. She listed several professions. We settled on “A woman's place is anywhere.” I wrote Houseman. She approved. We laughed. She said, “I want to know the reason why the men think like this way, and especially the older women don't want the daughters to go to school...” She pointed to the proverb, “I want to start a group about this.”
Dumbfounded, mega-inspired and feeling—for the first time—hopeful about the plight of women internationally, I left the school wondering what's next? How can I help? When did the soft-spoken, young woman with the bow in her ponytail become a feminist with a mind to change status quo?