Respect your parents, and maintain harmony at home: Cambodia’s first “daughter-in-law school” teaches a traditional women’s code – but with more than a nod to modern life.
Phnom Penh (dpa) – At a large house near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, four girls sit quietly around a wooden dining table, making paper bouquets and carving vegetables into lotus flowers.
Aged 6 to 24, they are just a few of the students who come to the house each week to learn traditional Cambodian skills, from crafts and cooking to comportment and morality.
Teacher Lim Mouly Ratana, 36, calls her classes “daughter-in-law school”, but her students also include unmarried and professional women, as well as a few men who want to learn how to cook.
One side of the classroom has been converted into a tidy, open kitchen, while on the other students’ artwork and handicrafts decorate the walls.
“I want Cambodian women to have some understanding about women’s tasks at home because in modern society, some people are not interested in it,” said Mouly Ratana, who besides running the school is married with children.
At the heart of Mouly Ratana’s teachings is Cambodia’s chbap srey, or women’s law, a code of conduct for women that is still widely followed in the socially conservative country.
The chbap srey, based on a 19th-Century poem, makes up the core of her lessons on morality and comportment, advising students how to behave in social situations and maintain responsibilities at home.
The code’s repressive attitude towards women has however attracted criticism internationally, as it says for example that men are the master of the house, and a woman should “support him and believe him, avoid putting yourself as his equal,” and never turn her back to him, even in bed.
A UN committee in 2006 said the code “legitimises discrimination against women and impedes women’s full enjoyment of human rights and the achievement of equality between men and women.”
UNICEF reported in 2009 that Cambodia’s gender codes “hinder the achievement of gender equality in all aspects of life.”
Aid organizations say women’s unequal status is used to justify or at least ignore the high rate of domestic violence.
But Mouly Ratana and her students say they do not take the chbap srey wholesale, and disregard the misogynistic parts, as do most younger women.
The country’s domestic violence problem can be attributed to the actions of “bad men” rather than to the popularity of a 200-year-old poem, she says.
She also encourages her students to use the skills she teaches to get a job or start businesses, going against the chbap srey.
Kim Lin and fellow student Meng Ju, 24, plan to open a food stand and also work in a salon, respectively, rather than spend their days in their husbands’ homes.
However, these kind of concessions to modern life do not mean the original code is useless in Cambodia’s rapidly changing society, Mouly Ratana says.
Teachings about not telling outsiders about family problems, or complaining about your husband, are valid, she said. Instead it is better to talk out problems with your husband.
Her comportment student Kim Lin, 18, agrees on the importance of decorum.
“Before deciding to do something, we have to think critically whether if it is bad,” she said. “For clothing, we must not wear short skirt, but a proper and appropriate one. And we have to listen to our parents’ advice.”
The chbap srey lessons on protecting a woman’s reputation remain relevant in a culture that values virginity in women before marriage and fidelity afterwards.
“Our girls need to protect themselves from the time they are teens until they get married. That’s why they don’t have boyfriends like foreigners. Foreigners’ culture is different from us,” Lim Mouly Ratana says.
She says her schooling can help women retain the best of Cambodian traditions, including in the home, while pursuing careers amid the country’s rapidly changing society.
“Cambodian women have improved themselves a lot,” she said.
“Now, many go to work outside the home. Some become entrepreneurs. But sometimes, they may forget that you can be good at outside work, but your attention is also needed for in-home work, the family.”