Pichayada Promchertchoo chronicles the improbable influence that Catherine Harry has had on other Cambodian women in her article below. With two of its images, the piece is published here with the permission of Channel NewsAsia, a regional news organization based in Singapore.
Anger is not always a bad thing, at least not for 23-year-old Cambodian Catherine Harry. Such emotion has led her to be featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia 2018, the magazine’s annual selection of young visionaries who tackle issues that matter in countries around the world.
Born bred in Cambodia, Ms Harry often gets angry about certain aspects of her culture. She finds several customs, social values and ideas that have shaped millions of lives in her homeland, oppressive towards women. In her eyes, many of them are victims of a patriarchal society, where women can be confined by what she views as outmoded conventions and biases.
Yet, Ms Harry knows how to handle her anger. For more than a year, she has been turning her frustration about gender inequality into a growing collection of video blogs on her Facebook page A Dose of Cath, which currently has more than 200,000 followers and close to 199,000 likes. Most of the clips reverberate with her fierce passion for women’s rights and ideas about challenging society’s paradigm of how women should live their life.
“I thrive on passion and anger,” said the feminist, who attends Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
“When I see news about women being oppressed or victimised, I feel I need to do something because if I don’t, I’m going to implode,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
Ms Harry was the only millennial from Cambodia selected from more than 2,000 nominees from around the world for Forbes’ 2018 list, which was unveiled this week. Her aspiration to empower women and daring takes on breaking down gender taboos are driving open discussions on various topics – including menstruation, safe sex, violence in music videos and rape culture – which would otherwise be a hush-hush affair.
As controversial as they may seem by Cambodian standards, more than half of her video blogs have hundreds of thousands of views. Her most popular clip so far focuses on virginity, where she questions the reasoning behind the deep-seated taboo against women’s sexual liberation. The feedback was overwhelming. The video has 2 million views and 45,000 shares.
“It has been a tradition that a woman has to stay pure for her wedding night. A woman has to remain a virgin because otherwise she’s a used item,” Ms Harry said.
“This tradition needs to be dismantled. A woman isn’t food or an item to be discarded or considered as a ‘leftover’. I want people to start seeing women as women. I want women to start having sexual liberation and understand it’s their body.”
In societies such as Cambodia where tradition is seen as something to be preserved and respected, it is often an uphill battle to change the prototype of ‘ideal women’. Generations of Cambodian girls have been raised with Chhbab Srey or ‘Rules for Women’ – a traditional code of conduct that dictates the ideal femininity.
Written as a poem, Chhbab Srey instructs women to be polite, gentle and submissive. They are expected to fulfil their roles as good mothers and obedient wives and never discuss family matters outside their home. Even when their husbands are rude to them, ‘ideal women’ should know to stay silent as quarrels would only tarnish their reputation and render them useless.
Chhbab Srey was part of Cambodia’s school curriculum until 2007, when the Ministry of Women’s Affairs called for its removal. Still its traditional portrayal of ‘ideal women’ continues to permeate the modern-day society. Increasingly, however, gender stereotypes it has influenced have been viewed by women’s rights activists as a key factor behind gender-based violence.
When Cambodia carried out a national survey on women’s health and life experiences in 2016, it found that one in five women had experienced sexual or physical violence by their partner and that more than half of these women had not told anyone about the abuse.
“The most common reason for women who had experienced partner violence not seeking help was because they thought the violence was normal,” the survey said. “Violence against women is driven by gender inequality.”
Even now, the shorter version of Chhbab Srey is taught in school and Cambodian women still face pressure from society to behave a certain way.
“Cambodian culture still suppresses women. There are people out there who still hold on to the belief that women should be pure and proper and shouldn’t talk about sex because it’s immoral for women to do that. We’re still somehow pressured into wearing a certain clothing because otherwise they’d be slut-shamed. Domestic violence is still a problem and rape culture is thriving,” Ms Harry said.
“I want to address these modern women’s issues. There is always room for improvement.”
Five years ago, Ms Harry embarked on a project that helped shape her outlook.
At the age of 17, she was involved in the BBC Media Action project in Cambodia. She was part of the production of Love9 – a weekly TV and radio show that educated young people about sexual and reproductive health issues. It introduced Cambodian girls to a whole new world where women’s rights matter and social taboos are openly discussed.
A video blogger named Laci Green, whom she came across during her research for the programme, inspired her to delve deeper into feminism and gender equality issues.
“I started to reflect back on my life as a woman in Cambodia and I felt angry. I felt it was unfair how we’ve been treated and I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “We’re so confined by culture. I wanted to break all these taboos. I wanted to dismantle patriarchy.”
To achieve what she had set out to do, Ms Harry started video blogging on Facebook. Her clips have received mixed reactions from the audience. It is a combination of love and hate. Sometimes, she said, the latter can be overwhelming.
“I get a lot of backlash. You have so many people hate you and call you names. But I also feel I get energy from those haters because the more they hate it, the more it feels like a success. You cannot make waves without ripples. I feel like it’s a positive sign.”
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(If the piece above intrigued you, you may well want to check out a recent magazine article about a man who demystifies women for boys in Kenya.)