Ly Navy had just come back from school. Wearing her school uniform and a scarf to cover her head, the second-year medicine student at Phnom Penh’s University of Health Science entered a room filled with bunk beds, bookshelves and wardrobes.
For now this was her home, a hostel for female Muslims on the grounds of the International Dubai Mosque in Phnom Penh.
The 22-year-old student from Kampong Cham province said she has felt at ease staying in the hostel for more than a year.
“Staying here is not difficult, as we have a firm and good manager who is taking care of us,” she said, referring to her student head sitting nearby.
“Most students in this hostel come from provinces, and as you know our parents cannot afford our high education here in the city,” said Math Islamiyas, another student from Kandal province. “So, we are really happy to be able to go to colleges or universities on provided scholarships.”
Some scholarships are offered on a competitive basis by the Islamic Development Bank or organizations in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, according to the Cambodian Muslim Student Association.
Fifty-two university students have been staying here at the International Dubai Mosque since the first-ever hostel for female Muslim students was opened in 2007, said the student head, Tolos Fa-Eysas , who is from Kratie province.
Most of them are from the provinces of Kampong Cham, Kratie, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang.
They are all studying at both private and state colleges or universities, according to Tolos FaEysas, herself a fourth-year student of computer science at Norton University.
“When we stay here, we not only have a chance to go to university, but we also have access to Islamic education,” said the 25-year-old Tolos Fa-Eysas, adding that all the female students in the hostel go to Arabic or Malay classes or Quran-reading classes every evening in an Islamic institute next door.
CMSA President Sos Mousin said the creation of the hostel encouraged parents of Cambodian Muslims to send their daughters for higher education.
“Some parents do not lack money; they really can afford their daughter’s higher education, but they are worried about her staying in the city,” Sos Mousin said. “So the hostel is of great value, not just for poor students but also for those concerned parents.”
Of 300 Muslim students who are attending colleges or universities in the country, more than 100 are female.
Some are staying with relatives in the city, said Sos Mousin, who is also a secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion.
Like their Buddhist counterparts, most Muslim female students in the countryside have little chance of even finishing high school, let alone attending higher education. They are generally not encouraged to go away from home for fear of their personal safety and security.
Consequently, rarely does one see Muslim women holding high positions in either private or state institutions.
Among more than 20 high-ranking Muslim officials in the government, just two are women, serving as undersecretary of states, said one of them, Kob Mariah, who works at the Ministry of Women’s Affair.
However, with recent permission by the government to let female Muslim students wear traditional clothes in schools, more Muslim parents will send their daughters to universities, she said.
“I believe more and more female Muslim students will pursue higher education, such as those at the hostel,” said Kob Mariah, who is also secretary-general for the Cambodian Islamic Women Development Association.