Tiger Women of Asia: Cambodia's Complex Matriarchy

I've just returned from a life-changing three-week trip through Vietnam and Cambodia. I was humbled and inspired by the “Tiger” Women I met during my travels, and have so many insights to share from my conversations with them. Here’s the third in a series of posts on the surprising and fascinating things I learned while traveling through the rural countryside.

Women in power

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Cambodia has a long history of matriarchy—a culture in which women are considered to be the more powerful and important gender. Females, especially mothers, often hold the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property. In fact, the first person to rule all of Cambodia, Queen Liu Ye, was a woman and because of her history and power, many Khmer (Cambodian) terms that reference status and power reference women. Even to this day, husbands must offer a dowry and are expected to move in with their wives’ families after marriage.

Nearly 95% of Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism, a religion that includes some fascinating female figures. Among them is Kwan Yin, who is sometimes referred to as the “female buddha.” Kwan Yin sought and achieved enlightenment, and has long been worshiped as a goddess of compassion, beauty, and grace in many Asian countries, including Cambodia.

Apsaras, female spirits of clouds and water, also hold a sacred place in Cambodian culture. In mythology, Apsaras are gifted in the art of dancing, and Cambodian classical dance includes a mesmerizing Apsara dance done in full costume.

Worshiped and controlled

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But this rich history of women in power is counterbalanced by a culture of “purity.” A facet of women's value and significance in Cambodia is the belief that girls and women are like clean, white sheets of paper that must be kept pure. Families tend to be protective of their daughters, holding them back from education since traveling to school puts them at risk for rape and assault by sex traffickers.

These conflicting messages make moving through life as a Cambodian woman complex and challenging, to be sure.

Moving toward modernity

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The women I met during my own travels struck me as independent, wise, and grounded. I was thrilled to see multiple programs bringing bikes to young girls, allowing them to commute their way safely to and from school and further their educations. And connecting with pioneering entrepreneurs like Ms. Vy, who fearlessly built her business empire almost single-handedly, made it clear that many Cambodian women are moving beyond purity worries and toward a bright future.

Living within a culture that holds you in esteem but also holds you back from opportunity poses many challenges. But with their ingenuity, patience, intuition, and perseverance, it's clear that Cambodian women are ready to re-write the script and re-take their place of power in this traditionally matriarchal society!