An Interior Ministry official on Wednesday said the draft Law on Public Order, which rights advocates say looks to control Cambodians’ behaviors, does not prevent women from wearing revealing or see-through clothing, and was being misrepresented.
Rights advocates, Cambodian women, and social media users have strongly criticized a section of the draft law that looks to govern the clothing worn by people, by preventing men from being topless and women from wearing see-through or revealing clothes.
The article falls under the “National Tradition and Dignity” section of the draft legislation, which also restricts artistic expression.
Ouk Kimlek, a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, defended the legislation and denied it prevented women from wearing see-through or revealing clothing, and that it was only a public order issue if people exposed their genitals.
“You need to read the full meaning, not just some words. It doesn’t have complete meaning if you cut some words,” he said.
However, a copy of the draft reads that women will be prohibited from wearing clothing that is revealing and see-through or if such clothing exposes their genitals. The same applies to the prohibition on men not wearing a shirt.
Ouk Kimlek, who led the drafting of the law, questioned a VOA Khmer reporter if it was okay for someone to walk in a market revealing their genitals, adding that the draft was subject to change as it made its way through the consultation process.
“It is not a law yet. We will have a public workshop and we will follow the majority [decision] since we are a democratic country,” he said.
The draft has elicited a strong reaction from Cambodian women and rights activists, who have criticized the government’s attempts to define decency and morality, as well as the policing of women’s freedoms and bodies, which they said is often used an as an excuse to perpetuate victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault.
The outrage was sparked by a July 31 Thomson Reuters Foundation article on the draft law, where Ouk Kimlek defended the draft and was quoted as saying it was “good to wear something no shorter than the middle of the thighs.”
VOA Khmer also accessed a copy of the draft law and on July 14 published a story quoting Ouk Kimlek who said the clothing prohibitions were needed to “prohibit activities that go against the traditions too much.”
On Monday, a petition was started on change.org denouncing the draft law’s attempt to restrict women’s freedoms and self-expression. In 48 hours, the petition had garnered more than 12,000 signatures.
“Reprimanding women for their clothing choices serves to reinforce the notion that women are to blame for the sexual violence they suffer, and thereby further entrenches the culture of impunity which exists in relation to gender-based violence,” reads the petition.
Bunn Rachana, executive director at women’s rights NGO Klahaan, said the government should stay away from attempting to control women’s personal decisions to wear what they like.
“There is no necessity for the royal government to spend time and resources to interfere with their private lives related to wearing clothes,” she said.
“It is their right to freedom and complete self-expression,” Bunn Rachana added.
Earlier this year, the government arrested a woman for allegedly dressing too provocatively to sell products on her Facebook page. The diktat allowing the police to arrest provocatively dressed online sellers was given by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At the time, he claimed women who dressed in revealing clothes damaged Khmer culture and provoked sexual desire among men that led to sexual violence and trafficking.
The woman was convicted for producing pornography and handed a six-month suspended sentence in late April, which was further reduced to 2 months and 15 days.
The Ministry of Culture, which supported Hun Sen’s directive in February, has also targeted women for the way they dress or their art forms. In 2017, it banned actress Denny Kwan for one year for wearing skimpy clothing.
According to Khmer Times, the ministry also banned a song in June for references to female genitals and summoned the composer to apologize and delete the video from a YouTube channel.
The draft Law on Public Order will likely regulate and criminalize public behavior and business activities, according to rights activists, by targeting the actions of the poorer sections of society and working classes.
The wide-ranging law, drafted by the Interior Ministry, will give authoritative control to officials, all the way down to the commune council, to regulate Cambodians’ behavior and activities in public spaces, through several prohibitions that can be enforced by vaguely defined and discretionary powers.
The draft law deals with multiple aspects of the community, such as the aesthetic look of public spaces, how much noise people can make, and the Ministry of Interior’s interpretation of daily activities that affect national tradition and people’s dignity.