Miniskirts can have their days numbered in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country is debating a law of public order that includes clauses against “sexy” clothing, namely “too short” dresses and female “transparencies,” as well as “naked torso” for men. Defended by the authorities as an attempt to protect Khmer culture and national traditions, its processing raises fears that it will be used to punish, above all, women who wear certain garments and dilapide the progress on equality made for years.
“It’s okay to wear something that covers more than half the thigh,” said Ouk Kim Lek, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior and in charge of drafting the draft law. The text was finalized on 16 June, and has since been revised by the provincial authorities before being put to a vote in Parliament. So far it has received support from 20 of the country’s 24 provinces, ruled by Hun Sen since 1985. The prime minister, a red exjemer who ended up joining the Vietnamese coalition to overthrow Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in 1979, which wiped out a quarter of Cambodia’spopulation, has led the country into autocracy in recent years.
The Government argues that the objective is to preserve the national traditions of Cambodia, of Buddhist majority. “This is not entirely a matter of public order, but of maintaining traditions and customs,” Kim Lek added.
The initiative, which, if approved, could lead to fines and jail terms for those who dress inappropriately, arose in response to concern in the government’s ranks about the success of the online sale of clothing by women dressed in a supposedly “sexy” manner. Hun Sen urged in February to censor those social media accounts, a particular targeted attack on one of the entrepreneurs, Ven Rachna. The woman was arrested on the pretext of a post she had posted on Facebook and spent two months in prison.
This start-up and the tendency of the police to blame victims of sexual violence cases lead the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights to believe that the authorities will use the law primarily against them, even though outfits in men and those who cannot appear with the bare torso are also mentioned in the draft. This and other organizations fear that the law will be used as a tool to further oppress women and snatch their most basic freedoms, leading to an initiative in change.org against them that already brings together more than 21,000 signatures.
One of its signatories, Sothea Ines, 31, explains from Phnom Penh why the law doesn’t like it. “I can’t understand why the government is defending it. For me it is a way of oppressing women and should not be approved,” the filmmaker stresses, adding that they have not obtained any response from the authorities to the change.org.
Cambodians like Sothea Ines fear that regulations will reinforce the patriarchal system they have been fighting against for decades. Practices reflected in the poem Chbab Srey (“Women’s Laws”), a code of conduct that dictates that a “right” woman should shut up even if her husband beats her. Transmitted orally for centuries until it was transcribed, it has a strong roots in the country and is taught in schools.
However, Cambodia has made significant progress on equality in recent decades: practices such as the bride-to-groom “footwash” ceremony during the bridal liaison have fallen into disuse. There is equally encouraging data: the literacy rate in women over the age of 15 has increased from 57% in 1998 to 75% in 2015. Women are also at the forefront of most (61%) of the country’s business.
Contributions and progress that many expect will be made when reconsidering certain clauses in the draft. According to the South China Morning Post, which has had access to the text, it goes far beyond clothing. The possible law criminalizes everything from making too much noise to selling alcohol between midnight and six in the morning without special permission. It also proposes to prohibit any form of “begging” and “the use of face masks and other costumes” in public, in contravention of the recommendations of the Ministry of Health, which include the use of masks in schools, public transport and cinemas due to the coronavirus pandemic. A unique battery of provisions that up to 65 local organizations have denounced as possible violations of international human rights laws.
Time will tell whether or not Hun Sen and his government listen to civil society, and whether Cambodia continues to enter the tunnel of the past