Cambodia is not the easiest place in the world to be a woman – a woman in the arts, even less so. But the country is changing fast, sped along by the female artists and creators whose work, messages and career arcs chip away at those glass ceilings.
We caught up with four of the country’s most groundbreaking filmmakers, musicians, artists and writers to hear what spurs them on, what’s keeping Cambodian women back, and what advice they have for girls that hope to follow in their footsteps.
(Interviews have been edited for length and clarity)
Sopheak Sao Mesterham, Filmmaker
I am talking from my own experience as a mother of two, a filmmaker, a DJ and the Creative Director at META House: I have power enough to make my own decisions and to do as a man does.
Cambodia is a strict culture. As a female, you’re not allowed to make decisions ahead of a male, and decisions might be made for you by your parents, such as arranged marriage. Cambodian women in the countryside are mostly shy and uneducated because of poverty. Domestic violence still happens in this country. Women are paid less; I produced a documentary about female construction workers in Phnom Penh called STRENGTH – those female workers received a lower salary than the men and the government doesn’t have a solution yet.
There are also less female filmmakers in Cambodia – only around 30% of filmmakers in the country are women. I’ve joined numerous film festivals around the world and I am so proud to represent my country as Cambodian filmmaker, especially a female filmmaker.
A woman is a leader in her home and definitely in her workplace. I believe women must raise their voices for their rights in society and politics. Education is very important to empower daughters – it’s a responsibility Cambodian parents have to consider. Don’t be shy to correct your mistakes!
Vartey Ganiva, Punk Singer
Cambodia’s rich tradition makes me really proud. Cambodia has kept this rich tradition even through colonialism, genocide and civil war. Growing up in the countryside, I remember my grandmother and my mother being the ones who kept the tradition alive by saying again and again what Khmer tradition is and how to do things the right, traditional way. Khmer women run the household and manage the money, at least in the countryside, and go out in the rice fields or go fishing even when we have babies. I am proud to be a Khmer woman. I am proud of my brown skin.
But the rich Khmer culture that makes me so proud is also a big problem. Because every thing has two sides; a very good thing has also a very bad side. And for me as a country girl, the bad thing was that my grandmother and my mother always told me that I have to behave [a certain way] because of Khmer tradition.
But then I see so many boys in my village who can do whatever they want – and why doesn’t Khmer tradition count for them? Is it part of Khmer tradition to have sex for the first time with a prostitute? Is it Khmer tradition to have your secret lover besides your wife? Is it Khmer tradition to get drunk and beat your wife? And why wasn’t I allowed to just have sex with my boyfriend? Why wasn’t I allowed to get drunk and go out at night time? These are the questions that Khmer tradition could never answer! And I am still asking these questions.
All Khmer women need to ask these questions, and in public. Why is it that we have so few female politicians? Why are most of the business leaders men? Why do the men in my village call me a bad girl if I have sex with my boyfriend? Why are you not a bad boy if you have sex with your girlfriend? Why are you not a bad boy if you have sex with a prostitute? Why do I have to wash the dishes? Why do I have to look after the kids all the time? Why do I have to cook every day? Why am I not allowed to go out dancing and get drunk? Why this? Why that? Questions are the most important! We have to ask questions, because we need to talk and understand what is going on.
We need to come together, and we need education. We need to read books and talk about these books, and we need to sing songs together. Khmer women can only be strong if we help each other, and come together and speak out together!
Thavry Thon, Author
I think the biggest problem for Cambodian women and girls is a lack of encouragement and support from people around them. Family plays very important part in changing the lives of their children. Also access to information and higher education.
I am most proud of being a female author in Cambodia when I see readers enjoy the book and I receive a very motivational message back from them. It makes me feel hopeful that young people will start to like reading.
If you wanna become a writer, then you should love reading. They are like husband and wife. Start to write your own journal or short blog posts; share your thoughts with friends through your writing. It does not matter if they are good or not, but at least you have the courage to share. A true artist is not afraid of sharing or criticism.
I think women need to have the courage to unlock their potential and be brave to keep fighting for what they want to do or achieve in life. Courage and commitment are very important in order to reach your goal. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small.
Dina Chhan, Artist
Many people in Cambodia only think of men as artists. They don’t see women as artists. That’s why I’m so proud to be a female artist here, to show that women can represent art and culture. To show the world and the local people that women can do other things – not just stay at home and be a housewife. We can be artists.
But I think Cambodia is changing. It’s not like 10 years ago; a woman now in Cambodia is very brave, very strong. If they have a good education, then they can stand by themselves. The world is different.
There are a many other women artists in Cambodia, not just me – they paint the story of what’s going on in Cambodia, they paint their message. And this is important, to have lots of different types of artists showing their work. The more people see it, the more they understand it.
The difficult thing before was that art was all about using dye – people couldn’t paint on the canvas. But now they know other ways. Many international schools, NGOs and public schools have started to recognise art. I can see that in the future there will be many more artists, because now many Cambodian kids are very talented. Before, Khmer kids didn’t understand it because they didn’t have it. I think it will change the way we are.
Phnom Penh is also changing. More galleries are coming up now, which is good because it will encourage many young artists to show their work. And the market is better – Khmer people buy the work as well, and they like abstract painting, and they’ve started to recognise and have pride in art. It’s very good for artists.
But art is not only about what you sell, it’s about what you love. About putting your heart first. And then the future will come.