Ladies Against Women (SE Asian Edition)


Cambodia is shifting into IWF mode:

At the turn of the year, a hapless young singer-cum-presenter was forced to make a grovelling apology on live TV after the prime minister announced that she had insulted Cambodian culture.

Her crime? Wearing a backless dress.

That incident set the tone for the rest of the year.

Things which have been declared "against the culture" have included mini-skirts, dyed hair, dating agencies, beauty contests and third generation mobile phones (the kind that allow high-speed internet access).

The article blames Prime Minister Hun Sen's wife and a band of "elite women" who call themselves the "Phnom Penh Wives." As BBC suggests, the women fighting "pernicious modern influences"–who have managed to criminalize adultery and the possession of cell phone technology–neglect to mention that the Cambodia of the past was in many ways less obsessively prudish than that of the present.

It's a familiar dynamic. Well into my first year working in Myanmar, I started to realize that a fair measure of the country's socially conservative, traditionalist social norms had been grafted onto the country in the very recent past. Wives of the reigning military leaders had formed coalitions, the purpose of which was to promote modest, traditional dress and "protect the culture." (Culture, so construed, was something they got to define.) This became clearer as I started to travel outside Yangon; the further you get from a city and the locus of military power, the less traditional the dress, the greater the acceptance of tee-shirts, Levis, and sartorial rebellion of all kinds.