Around 100 people including teachers and students held a rally on Sunday March 28 in an effort to stop female students from wearing short skirts. The campaign was expected to have more participants if its original plan to march through the streets of Phnom Penh was approved by the City Hall. Still, the campaign organizer, Seang Bunheang, Director of Khmer Teachers’ Association reportedly applauded this gathering as a success in sending the message of urging the Ministry of Education, academic institutions, teachers, female students and their parents to stop female students from wearing short skirts. This appeal is hoped to preserve Khmer Culture and discourage female students from vigorously adapting western culture:
“I had the idea to organise the campaign because I want to improve Khmer culture [and retain the culture] that we had many years ago – some Khmer women change their manner by copying other cultures and do things such as wearing short skirts or sexy clothes in schools and public places. That can destroy our culture,” says Seang Bunheang as quoted from Phnom Penh Post.
Acknowledging the the move could be seen as an undue pressure on women, the organizer repeatedly claimed it is justified for promoting Khmer culture.
I don’t force [women] from wearing short skirts, but I want to take care and improve our Khmer culture, “We have to take care in order for other countries not to look down on us.”
Seemingly, this campaign has been welcomed by major ministries, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, and some students. For example, there is support from Pov Sam An, deputy director of the Ministry's Informal Education System Department who reportedly agrees that female students should not wear short skirts. He also cited the existing mandatory rule instructing female students to wear only long skirts.
“All female students have to wear their skirts under the knees in school, and it is good that the Khmer Teachers’ Association campaign will remind people of this, I cannot accept that some female students in private or state schools wear such short skirts to school,” said Pov Sam An.
Even the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, San Arun, also welcomed the rally by sharing a similar opinion about the need to preserve Khmer culture. She allegedly claimed that “the trend towards shorter skirts was part of an ill-advised attempt to copy other cultures – a move she suggested could destroy Khmer culture if left unchecked.” Interestingly, she linked the short skirt as motivation for men to rape:
“Wearing short skirts and sexy clothes is a reason to cause rape cases to occur because all men, when they see white skin, they feel like having sex with them.”
This provocative statement has caught the attention of a prominent blogher Kounila Keo who posted this on her facebook page, which later sparked several comments. Here is an interesting remark by a commentator:
“This is like saying women in the Middle East who walk outside of the places they're allowed to, are asking to be raped. I think the Secretary is perpetuating a negative cultural attitude between genders. I'm sorry but women and short skirts are NOT the problem…I find that the leaders in Cambodia are part of the problem. If they want to positively change attitudes of the people, they need to start providing an avenue to discuss about these gender issues–not condemn those who are ultimately in ‘ownership’ of their bodies.”
This idea is shared by Sim Socheata who sent a letter to Phnom Penh Post's editor, “Don't blame women for men's lack of self control”:
“We are witnessing that women and girls are blamed for being raped and sexually harassed for the kind of place they decide to go, the kind of dresses they decide to wear and the length of those dresses. Instead of calling for women to stop wearing short skirts, the Khmer Teachers Association could have marched against male perpetrators who rape women and girls, men who commit violence in the family, male teachers who sexually harass their students.”
While majority of those who commented on Kounila's facebook page believe that wearing short skirts is not the problem, Chanroeun Pa who also joined this debate wrote about the link between cultural integration and safety of women:
I don't completely agree with the secretary of the MoWA, and I don't really support the school girls to wear short skirt either. It is obvious that wearing short skirt is a Western style. In fact, there is nothing wrong with wearing the short skirt for the school girls in general. Instead it is an art or beauty of dressing for girl. But wearing short skirt which is too short in an inappropriate way and in wrong place is a great danger for the person herself. And therefore, this requires a consideration about the different cultural values between Cambodian culture and the West. We have to accept that new culture which emerges from the interaction with other culture is sometimes overwhelming. And the ground somehow is suitable for the seed to grow well. We will, should not ignore the sensitivity of sexual taboo in Cambodian society either. There is a saying about choice of cultural adoption, “You can either adjust your head to fit your hat, or adjust your hat to fit your head.”
Meanwhile, another blogger, Mean Lux is not in favor of the anti-short skirt campaign and issues this warning:
For protesters against wearing short skirt, facebook maybe next in their list to be banned to preserve the in-their-view Khmer tradition.
As expected, this campaign has received much attention. The debate is still ongoing with another social activist Chhay Sophal, writer for Open Institute, wrote “ទស្សនៈពីការស្លៀកពាក់បញ្ចេញសាច់”, “View on Skimpy Dresses.” He randomly interviewed young females in the capital and two other provinces to survey their opinion on the campaign. Though many respondents agreed that the ban on wearing short skirts is viable for academic institutions, they think it should not be applied in public spaces. Strikingly, the belief that wearing short skirts induces rape cases surprises the respondents:
“កាលពីមិនទាន់មានការស្លៀកពាក់ខ្លីបែបនេះកាលពីបណ្ដាឆ្នាំមុនៗ និងជំនាន់មុនៗ តើមិនមានករណីការចាប់រំលោភសេពសន្ថវៈមែនទេឬអី ហើយតើបុរសៗពិតជាមិនមានអារម្មណ៍ចង់រួមភេទមែនដែរឬអត់ បើពួកគេមិនបានឃើញសាច់សខ្ចីរបស់នារីៗនោះ? នារីវ័យក្មេងៗទាំងនោះបានសំណូមពរថា មនុស្សជំនាន់មុនមិនត្រូវបន្ទោសមនុស្សជំនាន់ក្រោយឡើយ ព្រោះសម័យកាល និងការវិវត្តវាពិតជាខុសគ្នាពីជំនាន់មួយទៅជំនាន់មួយ។”
Sophal highlighted that the respondents also reflected on the basic rights and freedom of individuals as guaranteed by the Constitution and international rights conventions. Further, the respondents appealed to the government to improve the rule of law and take serious intervention for social security rather than focusing on the short skirt matter:
សេចក្ដីថ្លៃថ្នូររបស់ជាតិមួយគឺត្រូវតែទប់ស្កាត់ការជួញដូរមនុស្ស និងការជួញដូរគ្រឿងញៀន ការលុបបំបាត់ទេសចរណ៍ផ្លូវភេទ ការលុបបំបាត់ការកេងប្រវ័ញ្ចលើស្ត្រី និងត្រូវតែគោរពសិទ្ធិស្ត្រី ហើយផ្ដល់តួនាទីស្ត្រីនៅក្នុងសង្គមប្រកបដោយសមភាពយេនឌ័រ ការផ្ដល់សេវាសាធារណៈ និងហេដ្ឋារចនាសម្ព័ន្ធសង្គមឲ្យបានគ្រប់គ្រាន់ដល់ពលរដ្ឋ ការបង្កើនការងារឲ្យមនុស្សធ្វើ ត្រូវមានការអភិវឌ្ឍទាំងនៅទីក្រុងនិងនៅជនបទ មិនមានអំពើពុករលួយជាប្រព័ន្ធ ត្រូវមានតម្លាភាព និងមានយុត្តិធម៌សង្គមជាដើម។
Regardless of the mixed views on this campaign, the trend is observably and likely to target girls rather than the main violators. Earlier there was also an attempt by the state to impose a girl curfew – which was justified by claiming that it would promote safety of women against being harmed at nightclubs or other entertainment areas. Groups asserted that it is better to strengthen the rule of law and restrictive policies on the nightclub itself.