Women in Cambodia
In Western countries before World War II, women were expected to stay home, raise a family and certainly not to join the workforce-that was the domain of men. But when the men went to war, women were called into the breach and, when they came back, women were not so keen to go back to being wives and mothers alone. They stayed, and they fought for rights like equal pay for equal work, the right not to be discriminated against because of their sex, and access to the same benefits and pensions.
That took many years, and the struggle in the west, even today, is far from over, but women now are an indispensable part of the workforce, and expect access to the same levels of education and wages as men.
The situation in Cambodia today is slightly different, but women are a valued part of our society. If we look into Cambodia's past, we
Princess Chayarach Devy
see that Cambodian people have at various stages of their history adopted matriarchy as a system, since the first Khmer tribes began to gather into small groups, and then into one, led by a female tribal chief whom historians know as Queen Lieu-Ye.
It was she who formed the kingdom known most commonly as Funan, but also referred to in ancient texts as Kok Thlork or Nokor Phnom (mountain country). Funan was the first step towards the formation of modern Cambodia. The geographical location of the earliest capital city of Funan was in the present-day area of Phnom Da Mountain in Angkor Borei district of Takeo province, in Cambodia's far south east.
After Princess Lieu-Ye had become queen, the Khmer people started to acknowledge and consider women as matriarchs-in their families as well as society as a whole. In memory of Queen Lieu-Ye's matriarchy as well as in honor of every mother and all Cambodian women, the word me, or mother, has been used in the Khmer language to prefix or precede certain words to express the state of greatness, leadership, or of being the most important article. So you get words such as medai (thumb), mekaoy (a chief or head of a group of people even if that person is a man), metorp (military commander). This word can also be used to refer to a male person who is the head of others in a group, or a male animal that is the head of a herd or a flock.
In the literature or daily spoken language, Cambodians address their parents and grandparents by calling the mother or grandmother first. They usually say "mother and father", or "grandmother and grandfather", but not "father and mother", which also indicates the high value placed on women.
It should be remembered that people in the Funan era lived in peace and prosperity under the reign of Queen Lieu-Ye. During her reign, an entire range of customs and traditions were created for Cambodians to follow. For instance, there is an important little rite within the marriage ceremony. It is called Preah Thong Taong Sbai Neang Neak. Preah Thong was the name of Lieu-Ye's husband. In the ceremony, a symbolic representation of Preah Thong clings to a piece of cloth worn on the nagini in order to make the journey to the Naga's kingdom, because Neang Neak is considered to be a daughter of the Naga King. However, people now think the Naga kingdom in fact represents the holy place where Princess Lieu-Ye and her bridegroom Preah Thong spent their honeymoon night. Now, this ceremony is held for a bride and a bridegroom to go into their honeymoon room to enjoy their first pure love. The Preah Thong Taong Sbai Neang Neak ceremony remains indispensable in the Khmer wedding ceremony because it indicates that the marriage is complete, the bride and the bridegroom have officially become husband and wife, and that it is time for the new couple to enter the room to enjoy their honeymoon.
Princess Indra Devy From now on, they have to maintain their love and respect each other forever. It should be noticed that this ceremony took place during the marriage of Preah Thong and Neang Neak (as referred to by Cambodians), who were the King and Queen of Kok Thlork Kingdom. Their real names are Prince Hun Tean from India and Princess Lieu-Ye or, as they became after their marriage according to historians, King Kaundinya and Queen Soma of Funan.
During the golden era of Angkor between the 9th and 13th centuries, Cambodia again had several great female leaders. Princess Indra Devy and Princess Chayarach Devy were sisters and both were also wives of King Jayavarman VII, the greatest king of Cambodian history. According to the Phimean Akas inscriptions, Princess Indra Devy was a scholar of Khmer literature and also a Mahayana Buddhist. She established four
faculties: Prasat Chey Srey Faculty, which is now known as Preah Khan Temple, Prasat Raja Veha Faculty, now called Taprum Temple, Prasat Banteay Kdei Faculty, now known as Banteay Kdei Temple, and Noren Tung Faculty. She lectured in Buddhism and educated women on their value and their obligations to the family and society.
Princess Chayarach Devy was also considered by her contemporaries to be a great and perfect wife, and the power behind the throne of King Jayavarman VII.
Women continued to influence Khmer society into the subsequent Long Vek era when the capital city was moved to Udong, and later to Phnom Penh.
The traditional ceremony of Kramom Chol Mlup, which parents traditionally organize for their eldest daughter when she reaches the age of puberty, is seen by Cambodians as a ritual that elevates a girl to the status of a woman. On the occasion of her first period, the girl is cloistered away for three to six months and takes the time to gain knowledge and to ask an elder woman to teach her rules of conduct for women towards her family and society.
During the time when this custom was more widely practiced, a man wanting to marry a girl first had to work for the girl's family for between three months and a year to prove his worth. If the girl's family did not like him, they could reject his marriage proposal. If they agreed to allow him to marry their daughter, the man had to fulfill a final obligation of bringing presents and a dowry as required by the girl's family. This custom still exists today.
Unfortunately, during the dark period of civil upheaval between 1970-1980, the fabric of society was torn, and many of the ancient customs were lost or lost the power and respect they once had. But as Cambodia enjoys peace and ancient customs are once again revived, the value of women in society is once again being acknowledged and celebrated.