I was extremely pleased to be invited to participate in the Cambodian LGBTQX Pride art exhibition this year, alongside some of my very favorite Cambodian and Cambodia-based artists. (My piece, a wall version of New Girl Law, is on the left; the amazing Viet Le’s love bang! is on the back wall.) The issues of silencing and self-silencing that I have been investigating in various ways for the past few years—in Cambodia and elsewhere—are really difficult to understand in the context of sexual freedom unless, as this piece in the Guardian pointed out yesterday, you are a Cambodian lesbian:
Traditionally, a Cambodian woman’s main role is to marry well and raise children. School lessons often reflect this and are geared towards preparing girls for these roles. As a result, many girls believe that this preparation is more important than academic aspirations. The Chbap Srey or Women’s Code of Conduct, which until recently was taught to all school children, outlines the importance for women to be feminine, modest and obedient thus limiting decision making power, political power and women’s social and professional capacity to express themselves and build relationships.
Although female employment is relatively high, women are more commonly employed informally by family members on a low wage. As a consequence, women are rarely financially independent and are typically dependant on their parents or their husbands. This factor is particularly significant for Cambodian lesbians as they are often financially incapable of living on their own or with their female partners. … In many cultures, women are discouraged from seeking or expressing sexual pleasure and their sexuality remains hidden.
One barrier was a simple book, a staple of Cambodian culture called the Chbap Srei, or Girl Law. The 19th-century book outlines women’s place in Cambodian society based on very traditional restrictive cultural values. Unsurprisingly, its male-centered counterpart—Chbap Bros, or Boy Law—is much shorter. …
“What I was able to see when I lived among this group of strong, independent, forward-thinking young women was that most of them still had copies of this book on their desks,” Moore said. “Yes, they were studying them from a legal perspective and attempting to be critical of them, but the fact that it was still a day-to-day part of their culture was amazing.”
By enforcing such aged constructs of gender, Cambodian culture likewise enforces heterosexuality. Moore said the young women she encountered considered it common sense that they should be married to men by the age of 24. The country is in the midst of a growing gay movement, Moore said, but the idea of any sexual relationship that defies heteronormativity is still shocking.
The Chbap Srei (Srey), of course, was the text we re-wrote during one of my stays in Cambodia, as a group. Then once the text was published, it was censored. In Cambodia. By some of the people who helped make it. And also in the US. By some of the people who claimed to want to help.
This situation, and the multiple veilings and censorings and discussions it spawned, was the basis for presenting this piece, in this way, as a part of Cambodian Pride in Phnom Penh. You can see the installation (held at Meta House, with images below and above by Jim Mizerski) here:
But significantly more important to me was the other work I contributed to in the space, a small zine-making station, with copies of How to Make This Very Zine in both English and Khmer. I was moved to tears that my work teaching self-publishing in Cambodia could help model a space to experiment in free expression, especially in the context of sexuality. And even more proud, of course, that girls got all up in it.