Female bokator martial artist challenges gender norms

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Sam Sreychea was selected as the third person to represent Cambodia to South Korea. Supplied

Not your typical Khmer woman, Sam Sreychea has challenged the Cambodian gender norm that it is inappropriate for females to train in the traditional martial art of bokator (the short form of kun bokator). She believes doing this activity not only has both physical and mental health benefits, but also helps to preserve traditional Khmer culture.

Recalling her first year of bokator training, Ms Sreychea, 21, said she had to ride a bicycle long distances to and from sessions, often not getting home until 8pm, which she admitted was not a safe hour to be out riding a bicycle, but worth it so that she could follow her passion.

“Many times I questioned why, as a woman, I wanted to take part in this male-dominated pastime. It is hard for me as a woman, but nothing was stronger than my passion and love for traditional Khmer martial arts,” she said.

There are three girls in her training team. This has only strengthened her desire to learn bokator, despite the risks, particularly the danger of spinal injuries. She is willing to sacrifice everything for bokator, driven by three things.

“Firstly, I really love this form of martial art. Therefore, I want to let the world know that Cambodia still has this precious and amazing art. Second, we generally say that girls are weak, but I want to be strong and be able to protect myself from any harm. Third, bokator means many things to me. It helps me stay strong both physically and mentally. Through facing challenges, I have learned to be more patient,” Ms Sreychea said.

Ms Sreychea was selected to take part in the National Games in 2016, after just three months of training.

“I still remember that time. I wasn’t confident, as I didn’t have much experience. I almost gave up because I was busy at work and didn’t have time to practice, but my coach kept motivating me until I achieved success,” she said.

Her persistence paid off, as Ms Sreychea won three medals at the National Games of Cambodia in 2016: one silver and two bronzes. She has competed at many other events as well.

Ms Sreychea recalled that her mum was advised not to allow her to practice bokator, yet no one else could understand her motivation the way she herself could. Although it was hard, she never told her mum how hard. When she achieves something, she always tells her mum.

She said that Cambodian girls are expected to be polite in all circumstances, especially in the way they move and speak, but in bokator she has to move her arms and legs around in the same way that the men do.

She confessed that she was very shy at first, because her coach was male. However, Ms Sreychea said that a woman who wants to practice bokator has to give up that shyness.

Ms Sreychea was recently selected as the third person to represent Cambodia by the Cambodian Kun Bokator Federation to participate in a five-month exchange programme to South Korea as a representative of Cambodia in bokator in the 2017 Cultural Partnership Initiative organised by the World Martial Arts Union.

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