Bar girls in Phnom Penh could be affected by the proposed law change. Photo: YouTube

Nations in the global South, particularly in Southeast Asia, have embraced the economic and technological aspects of globalization but tend to resist its cultural influences.

Cambodia is responding to these influences by reconstructing the narratives of nationalist culture and traditions and restricting what women can wear.

Youth and women’s rights organizations have criticized this legal provision, set out in in Article 36 of a draft Law on Public Order. This change in the law is harmful rather than beneficial to women and girls.

Contemporary Khmer culture and traditions have their roots in the traditional code for women called the Chbab Srey, which was written in the 19th century. It was written as a poem detailing the key characteristics of “virtuous” and “unvirtuous” women.

The Chbab Srey was incorporated in the education system in the 1960s before the civil wars and in the 1990s. The inclusion of the Chbab provoked debate between women’s rights organizations and the state in the 2000s.

This debate was evident in the Shadow Reports on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) prepared by a group of women’s rights organizations, the National Reports on CEDAW prepared by the state, and the Concluding Comments for Cambodia issued by the Committee on CEDAW of the United Nations.

This debate finally propelled the state to remove the Chbab Srey from the education system in 2007.

The current attempt to reconstruct Khmer culture and traditions in terms of women’s clothing was articulated in the draft law and edited on June 16.

This article prohibits women from wearing “items that are too short or too revealing, or which shows some part of the genital area.”

In my view, such a legal provision is harmful rather than beneficial to women and girls. It is not necessary because it won’t protect women’s dignity, as ostensibly stated. Several provisions of the current Criminal Code, which do need to be firmly enforced, are sufficient to protect women’s dignity.

These include criminalization of sexual harassment in Article 250, indecent assault (Article 246) and indecent exposure (Article 249). Article 36 of the draft law is mostly covered by Article 249 of the Criminal Code. This article says, “Any indecent exposure to others in a public place shall be punishable by imprisonment from six days to three months and a fine from 100,000 to 500,000 riels” (US$24-$121).

For this reason, Article 36 of the draft law is not necessary and will not protect women’s dignity.

On the contrary, it will oppress women’s rights, as argued by Monika Tan, a recent female high-school graduate who created an online petition using seeking 25,000 signatories from the public to stop this law.

As of the time of writing, more than 17,000 people had signed the petition, the key argument of which is that legal provisions should protect rather than oppress women’s rights.

In this view, wearing certain clothes as a form of self-expression is a fundamental freedom for women. Reprimanding women for their clothing choices serves to reinforce the notion that women are to blame for sexual violence and thus entrenches the “culture of impunity that exists in relation to gender-based violence.”

Many male and female petitioners echo this argument in their own words. One petitioner wrote, “I am a man, but I believe in equality and I do think this law oppresses woman’s rights.

“Women should be able to dress however they want as long as they feel confident in it. We’re in 2020, so we should empower women to do whatever they want. This law is a setback for the country.”

It is clear that Article 36 of the draft law is not necessary and is harmful to women and girls. Many people are objecting to it. The state should listen to their concerns.

Sambath My

Sambath My is a PhD candidate in development studies at the University of Melbourne.