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Bringing women to the front of Cambodia’s art scene

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
Chhan Dina hopes that Cambodian women would someday be brave enough to think outside of the box, step out of their comfort zone and pursue their dreams. KT/Jean-Francois Perigois

In this generation where people are more open to speaking up and being heard, are gender biases still as crucial as they were decades ago? How far have women gone in breaking through the glass ceiling? In advance celebration of the International Women’s Day, Rama Ariadi talks with two of the influential women in Cambodia who had their own share of struggles and triumphs in carving their names in industries dominated by prejudices.

Despite the quantum leaps that have been made in the cause for gender equality, there are still plenty of areas where the room for improvement is massive – to say the least. Yes, wages for female workers have risen. Women have now taken more active roles in determining the course of their lives and of the society. Thanks to the successes of suffragette, women solidarity movements are now gaining momentum.

These are just few of the long list of things women around the world have attained. But these accomplishments have often led the public to forget that beyond the institutionalisation of the government’s efforts to ensure gender equality, there are still areas where women are still considered as ‘second-class citizens’.

According to the figures released by the World Economic Forum in 2017, the average female job-seeker is still likely to be offered a wage that often does not go beyond two-thirds of their similarly qualified male counterparts. And if that is enough cause for worry, take into account the figures for Cambodia – where women often earn less than one-fifth of what their male counterparts earn. What’s even more alarming is those figures only take into account the earnings of those who are employed in the formal sector – which basically means these figures do not represent the full reality in the kingdom.

“There are certain expectations that Cambodian women are expected to abide by,” said Chantthy Kak, the former lead singer of Cambodian Space Project. “We are expected to be demure, reserved, and to focus our efforts on our family.”

As a musician who had managed to break through the independent music scene, Ms Chantthy admits that she has had to shed blood, sweat and tears to make her dreams come true. “The mainstream industry is hard to break through because they have certain expectations of how entertainers should look like. My face doesn’t sell, I’m not fair-skinned enough, not skinny enough – I’ve heard it all,” said Ms Chantthy.

Chantthy Kak did not let prevailing prejudices in the society stop her from pursuing her passion to promote Cambodian music internationally. KT/Rama Ariadi

But the barrage of criticisms directed at Ms Chantthy did not end there, as even her family had com-plained about how she carries herself in public. “My mother was always supportive of me, but there were always questions about my Cambodian identity,” she said. “But I choose to take in stride and focus on my passion – that is, music.”

Her resilience paid off shortly after she and former husband Julien Poulsen formed the Cambodian Space Project in 2009. “Had I hesitated, I won’t be touring across 24 countries with my crew,” she said, noting that the project totally changed her life.

“I know I have many problems that needs to be addressed,” admitted Ms Chantthy. “I sing in Khmer, for example, but my ultimate goal is to promote my passion, the tunes from Cambodia’s golden period, to the world.”

However, she continued, this is something that she cannot accomplish without the support of Cambo-dia’s younger generations. “Things are gradually changing, and there are more opportunities available to Cambodian women in many sectors – it is just a matter of being brave enough to seize the opportunity.”

Painter and sculptor, Chhan Dina, whose work has been exhibited in numerous galleries across the globe, concurs with Ms Chantthy. “Cambodia is changing, and there are many women who has managed to take high-ranking positions in the government and the private sector alike,” said Ms Dina. “However, there are incidents that got me thinking about how the different genders perceive power in whatever line of business that they are involved in.”

Ms Dina recalled a meeting that she attended with a successful female entrepreneur a while back. “My friend was the executive director of a major company, but people would not even take a second look and immediately chose to speak to her male staffs,” she said. “It wasn’t until it was made clear that she was the one in charge that people’s attitude began to warm up and accepted her as an authority figure.”

This becomes more complicated in informal sectors – which more often than not employ individuals who had no choice but to throw their work-life balance out of the window. “Cambodia is rich in culture and history, but then given the prevailing belief that a woman’s traditional role is confined within the threshold of their homes, there are very little to no chance for female Cambodian artist to work on their art, and as such, gain the recognition that they deserve,” explained Ms Dina. “Without the support of the family or the government, it is very hard for female Cambodian artists to attain that ideal level of productivity that is required for them to make a name for themselves.”

Art is institutionalised in Cambodia, added Ms Dina. It is not seen as art for art’s sake, as it serves not only as a symbol of religious devotion, but also a metaphor for the history of the nation. “As such, it is often associated with male artisans in pagodas,” she said. “But as the nation begins to open up, more and more people are becoming more aware of the role that art can play to exact changes in society – and this is where females should strive to be a part of.”

“Art, especially abstract art, is a reflection of what’s going on in the society,” she concluded.

“This is a chance for Cambodian women to show their lived experiences to the world, so we have to step outside of our comfort zone, broaden our horizon and show that women can do what men can do!”

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