PHNOM PENH – “Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Ahh! ” Catherine Harry exclaims on her weekly video series, A Dose of Cath.
Harry, 23, is referring to the Khmer women’s code of conduct, a set of traditional proverbs, or poems, that promote an extremely conservative view of women in Cambodia.
Her vlog, A Dose of Cath, deals with subjects like gender equality and reaches millions of Cambodians. But now she wants to tackle these taboo topics in her writing.
“This year I have a different focus. I’m actually working on a novel. It’s a monumental task. But as I’ve started writing it I’ve realized how difficult it is to create characters out of nothing,” Harry said.
Two books published this year by Cambodian women writers challenge the cultural norms set out in the Khmer women’s code – taking their titles directly from it.
“It states women can’t dive deep or go far,” said Kunthea Chan, 36, co-author of the new book Diving Deep Going Far, a “reality novel” based on interviews with several of Cambodia’s leading women in government, business, media and civil society.
“In English ‘Chbab Srey’ means how to be a proper woman,” said Thavry Thon, 28, author of A Proper Woman, her autobiography of growing up in rural Cambodia.
Until recently, the Khmer women’s code of conduct was taught to children in school. It no longer is but it’s still very much a part of Cambodian culture, and hard to counter its myths with facts. But these women writers are trying to do just that.
“I have heard about this code since I was young, but because I was too young to know about society and rights, I didn’t think twice about it. I always thought that a perfect woman had to follow the code,” Harry mentioned in A Dose of Cath.
Later on, I’ve begun to rethink the code. I’ve also just re-read the poem in its entirety, realizing that the code is very problematic. It doesn’t value and it oppresses women.”
Harry laughs when she mentions how someone once called her a “sex demon” for discussing sexual and reproductive health on her vlog. But this hasn’t stopped her from using her platform to discuss a variety of subjects from virginity and menstruation to masturbation.
“Cambodian women are supposed to be gentle, docile and are not supposed to talk about sex and yet here I am talking about it in front of thousands of people on social media,” Harry said.
“I get a lot of accusations and backlash against what I’m doing. One of the most common is people accusing me of destroying my culture [and] that I’m setting a bad example for Khmer women.”
Kunthea Chan thinks Harry is an impressive young woman. She looks forward to reading Harry’s upcoming novel, and thinks it will be a great addition to Cambodia’s growing literary scene.
“For us as women, culture and norms is inside [of] us. These invisible powers are the biggest obstacle for women,” Kunthea said.
After publishing her book A Proper Woman in English, Thavry Thon used her own savings to pay for the Khmer language translation. She even donated 2,530 copies of it to local schools to encourage young Cambodians to read.
“A lot of my friends publish in Khmer now and it sells very fast,” said Thavry. “The movement is starting. My writer friends come together to produce original content and better quality books. We’ve [organized] a writer’s festival. This year it will be in Battambang.”
A Khmer version of Diving Deep Going Far is in the works, according to Kunthea.
“It will be more effective when this book is translated into Khmer so it can be accessed. Cambodians speak English but not everybody can understand, or read, English well,” Thavry added.
Harry felt inspired reading both Diving Deep Going Far and A Proper Woman. There aren’t many books in Cambodia that discuss women’s issues. She’s confident her novel will bring something new to Cambodian literature.
“I’m hopeful that I will finish it this year. The book is actually [written] in English but then it will have to be translated into Khmer,” Harry said. “I find that the book is certainly needed because we don’t get many books that talk about the lives of Cambodian women.”